Putting a contemporary spin on the issue movie, writer-director Amy S. Weber has made what is essentially an inventively dramatized public service announcement against bullying. Through the not always plausible device of a film-within-a-film, A Girl Like Her examines the harassment of one high schooler by another, viewing events and their extreme aftermath from multiple perspectives.
The two young female leads, exceptionally well cast, deliver strong performances, and the drama benefits from Weber’s interest in understanding rather than demonizing the bully. Opening in major markets across the U.S. and boosted by a promotional campaign on instant-messaging service Kik Interactive, the film will resonate with teens and is sure to start conversations.
Strong lead performances help to counterbalance storytelling contrivance.
After the fictional South Brookdale High is named one of the country’s top public schools, a documentary crew arrives to explore its success. But the documentarian, Amy (played by Weber, and mostly an offscreen voice), shifts her focus to the less sunny side of the street when sophomore Jessica (Lexi Ainsworth) lands in the hospital after a suicide attempt. Amy quickly uncovers the open secret that Jessica was being tormented by her former friend Avery (Hunter King), whose cruel texts, verbal taunts and physical assaults drove her to utter despair.
Ainsworth convincingly captures Jessica’s openheartedness as well as her shame and embarrassment over being at the receiving end of relentless abuse. And the movie shows how that emotional pain, in combination with the social proscription against snitching, could leave someone feeling isolated, even when her parents are supportive and loving.
But Jessica, it turns out, wasn’t alone: Six months before she swallowed a bottle of pills, her best friend, Brian (Jimmy Bennett, geekily sweet), gave her a wearable spy camera to document what she was going through. Somehow the hard evidence didn’t empower her, but Brian eventually shows it to Amy, along with his own handheld footage — material that accounts for half of the movie.
As with most such conceits, the use of documentary and spycam footage presents inconsistencies and logical gaps, the needs of the fictional film overriding authenticity. Conveniently but unbelievably, Jessica’s parents (Stephanie Cotton, Mark Boyd) allow the documentary crew to hover in the hospital room where the girl lies in a coma. Rough language in the “nonfiction” footage is bleeped, presumably for the real-world PG-13 rating, but raising questions as to who within the world of the film is censoring its layers of footage. The overused score presents similar questions.
Perhaps least believable is Avery’s ultimate repentance, though not because of any fault in King’s performance. No less than the sequences zeroing in on the toothlessness of school anti-bullying policies, Avery’s awakening is clearly an expression of the filmmaker’s mission statement. Her message is important, but the drama lapses into speechifying.
King, who like Ainsworth has been a daytime-soap regular, plays an archetypal queen bee with impressive ferocity. As leader of a self-important clique, Avery is the kind of girl who equates “popularity” with being universally resented. Both Weber and the filmmaker she portrays approach Avery with compassion, even while exposing her monstrous behavior. Amy the documaker is a savvy and sensitive journalist who appeals to the girl’s vanity and gets her to make a video diary, adding a social media layer to the movie’s mix.
It becomes clear that Avery learned her controlling ways from her status-conscious mother, well played by first-timer Christy Engle. She nabs the character’s desperate insecurity as she puts on domestic-goddess airs for the documentary camera. But it’s unlikely that the family’s issues would spell themselves out as clearly and instantly as they do.
Even when the storytelling structure trips over itself, the improvised performances have an in-the-moment ring of truth, and DP Sam Brownfield gives each of the visual layers an apt texture and sense of movement. The air of suburban privilege and conformity comes through too, in the Detroit-area locations.
Production companies: Radish Creative Group in association with Bottom Line Entertainment
Cast: Hunter King, Lexi Ainsworth, Jimmy Bennett, Christy Engle, Stephanie Cotton, Mark Boyd, Jon Martin, Michael Maurice, Amy S. Weber
Screenwriter-director: Amy S. Weber
Producers: Amy S. Weber, Danny Roth, Jeffrey Spilman
Executive producers: Russell Dann, Brian Oakley
Director of photography: Sam Brownfield
Production designer: Ronit Pinto
Costume designer: Aline Hong
Editor: Todd Zelin
Composer: David Bateman
Casting directors: Dayna Polehanki, Stephanie Holt
Rated PG-13, 92 minutes