Documentaries are powerful. They give the audience, who lie safe behind the screen, a view into a gritty, real world that they can’t imagine, with topics such as war, poverty and treason.
Yet Amy Weber’s faux-documentary “A Girl Like Her” gives viewers a chilling perspective of something everyone has experienced: bullying.
“Bullying has been around for as long as humans existed, but it’s never been so easily accessible, so widely used by the masses,” Weber said.
She cites social media as the reason for the recent growth.
“The time had come for the story to be told, and this perspective has never been seen,” Weber said.
The storyline follows sophomore Jessica Burns, played by Lexi Ainsworth, who is in a comatose state after attempting suicide. Initially, the school is shocked as to why this sweet, quiet girl would attempt to take her life. Slowly, word trickles out that Jessica was severely bullied by Avery Keller, played by Hunter King, a popular girl who used to be good friends with Jessica.
The story is delivered in a “documentary” style and follows four different storylines. Jessica’s videographer friend Brian, played by Jimmy Bennet, films her daily and documents the increasing hate towards her. Brian gives Jessica a hidden camera to get first-hand filming of the bullying, which she wears for six months up to her suicide attempt. The viewer gets a first-person view into the tragedy itself.
The final storylines acts as our omniscient narrator, where a documentary crew comes to the school, which has been named one of the highest-ranking public schools in the country. The subject of the documentary is altered with news of Jessica’s suicide attempt.
The result is a twisting, richly detailed story that makes viewers question societal biases and hate, and look for ways to make a positive change.
Though they are inspired by “a million true stories,” the chilling events that transpire are unbelievable. Avery stalks Jessica, verbally abuses her at a level unlikely for a high school teenager and writes multiple emails and Facebook posts telling Jessica to kill herself.
“I’ve worked with young people in documentaries of social issues for the past 20 years, and at the heart of each was one main theme: a lack of sense of self in young people,” Weber said. “There was a great deal of pain inflicted onto them from their adults and peers, and not a clear understanding of how to deal with that.”
Weber says the character of Jessica was inspired by Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old Irish girl living in Massachusetts who committed suicide in 2010 after being severely bullied by six of her former friends. Weber says Prince’s death was difficult for her to come to terms with.
“When I developed Jessica, I thought of Phoebe–she even had dark hair, and had a certain demeanor to her,” Weber said. “When Lexi [Ainsworth] came in, I told her about Phoebe and she was so emotionally attached to that, she used Phoebe’s story to shape her situation.”
Weber also indicated that the entire film was improvised.
“We worked closely with the actors on each scene, the motivation behind the scene, the type of language being used, who runs it … there was limited rehearsal and we rolled,” she said. “The actors brought their own emotions and words [to the roles], it was very personal.”
While Weber soars in her shocking depictions, the film falls into the same tired stereotypes seen in “Mean Girls,” “Glee” and every other teenage coming-of-age drama: the bully is a pink-wearing, lip-gloss-loving, blonde.
Weber said that as a society, people create this stereotype for our bullies, such as a girl that everyone wants to be friends with and a guy everyone wants to date.
Weber does give us a glimpse into Avery’s less-than-perfect life with some backstory that shows why she bullies, but the plot is a little weak with regard to why the bullying arose in the first place. Maybe Weber intended to show that the lines of good and evil and right and wrong are blurred – but what she loses in clarity, she also loses in plot.
Nonetheless, the film packs a punch right to the gut. Seeing the faces of Jessica’s teachers, parents, classmates – bystanders who could sense something was amiss but did nothing – is harrowing.
King does a phenomenal job of balancing Avery’s whiny, popular queen façade with the hurting, defensive teenage girl. Ainsworth, in turn, balances the depressed victim with the carefree, beautiful sprit that Jessica takes on when she is with Brian.
Weber says that she hopes those who see her film will take on a new perspective. She insists that kids start sharing their voices, to be equal to adults in decision-making, especially in city councils and school boards. She has introduced the “Peacekeeper Kit” project to help young people get involved with terminating bullying.
She also urges college-level students to get involved in this issue.
“Young people look up to [college students],” she said. “You can be leaders here. We don’t hear from you as much as we should. You have survived bullying, but as you get older it takes on different forms. You have the power to make them realize that it is not ‘cool’ to be negative or unkind and hurtful.”
She hopes that viewers leave the film understanding that bullies are often victims of pain and suffering, and only by helping them can society move forward.
“It’s hurt people that hurt people,” she said.
Featured photo courtesy thats-normal.com