Kernel Rating (out of 5):
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 94 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 13+. The film is about high-school bullying; although fictional, it’s shot as a documentary, which means that some of the content may be particularly impactful for younger viewers because it seems real. There is a suicide attempt; lots of cursing, including a few uses of the f-word; some physical pushing and shoving; and tons and tons of verbal abuse and harassment in the form of texts, emails, and videotaped interactions between teenage girls.
The overall effect of the faux-documentary ‘A Girl Like Her’ is sometimes overwhelming, but also somewhat redundant. There is power in some of the movie’s messaging about exploring the motives behind bullying, but not in how much it repeats itself to get there.
By Roxana Hadadi
The faux-documentary “A Girl Like Her” describes itself as being “based on a million true stories,” and it uses the film-within-a-film format to try and explore both sides of bullying: the bully and the victim. It’s an admirable attempt: to explore what gets anyone, especially a young person, to the point of being unfathomably cruel to another. But there’s a redemptive angle to the film that is never really believable, and there’s an imbalance of attention to character development to “A Girl Like Her” that makes the narrative feel almost naïve.
The (fictional) setup is this: South Brookdale High School is just like any other, and was recently named one of the top 10 best high schools in the country, the only one of its kind for public schools. At the same time, though, one of its students recently tried to kill herself: Quiet sophomore Jessica (Lexi Ainsworth) swallowed a bottle of pills and is in a coma, and no one can quite figure out why. The juxtaposition of these news items causes filmmaker Amy Gallagher (portrayed by the real-life writer and director of “A Girl Like Her,” Amy S. Weber) to visit the school and try to uncover what exactly is going on, and why a school that looks so good on paper would also have this tragedy within its community.
While documentary maker Amy, who brings her camera crew into the high school and also trails Jessica’s family as they hope for her recovery, is trying to figure out what exactly what was happening in Jessica’s life, she hears rumors that she had problems with one person: the sophomore class’s most popular girl, Avery (Hunter King). The blonde is everything you would imagine for a high school queen bee—surrounded by a clique of crony friends, trendily and flashily dressed, foul-mouthed and exclusionary—and person after person that Amy interviews hesitantly admit that Avery can be cruel, Avery can be vindictive, Avery can be vengeful. Why she focused so much on Jessica, no one knows—but they all agree that the problem was noticeable, and yet no one did anything about it.
Jessica’s parents knew about Avery’s abuse of their daughter, but not its extent; the only one who has some understanding of everything Jessica was going through is her best friend Brian (Jimmy Bennett, of “Star Trek”), a camera geek who was her closest confidante. And so “A Girl Like Her” weaves together varying perspectives: that of Jessica, captured by Brian’s amateur filming and confessional-style conversations with his best friend; that of schoolmates, parents, teachers, and School Board members, captured by Amy’s film crew; and that of Avery herself, who Amy convinces to keep a video journal to share her own feelings about being accused of tormenting Jessica.
The viewpoints are layered on top of each other to try and provide a whole picture of the relationship between the two girls, but it’s a messy idea from the beginning; the combining of styles is too obvious in its “this could be you!” messaging to young viewers. The movie’s opening sequence, with a first-person camera angle that thrusts audiences literally into Jessica’s shoes as she makes her suicide attempt, is jarringly effective, but then the interviews with shrugging, forgettable students stack up one after another, and then the teachers and administrators start their own parade of comments about youth today, and then Avery creates her video logs that speak directly to the viewer, and the effect is too many people saying the same old things. Weber is trying to make “A Girl Like Her” appeal to every person imaginable, but in trying to break the fourth wall in so many ways, it shows its hand too often. Its attempt to be really real results in diminishing returns as the film progresses.
There’s also a problem here in how “A Girl Like Her” treats its subjects, especially the pair of Jessica and Avery. Because of how the plot is structured, Jessica’s suicide attempt takes her out of the present-day narrative, meaning we don’t ever really get to know her—we spend time in her bedroom, with her stuffed animals and her ballet shoes, and we see some flashbacks to her and Brian hanging out together at school, but primarily she is defined by Avery’s abuse. Avery, in contrast, gets practically the entire second half of the film to herself after Amy encourages her to film herself to provide “the popular girl perspective.” It’s a ruse to uncover whether Amy is really a bully, but still, the film explains and then practically excuses her behavior, providing explanations for her terrible personality that never force her into any accountability.
Toward the end of “A Girl Like Her,” one parent character even says of bullies, “hurt people are the ones who hurt people,” which very clearly articulates the film’s message about forgiveness—but that feels like a copout after so many preceding instances of Avery actively encouraging another girl to kill herself. Should someone like that really be absolved? “A Girl Like Her” seems to be arguing that it’s possible, and it’s an undeniably unpopular opinion. As much as “A Girl Like Her” wants to reach out to every viewer and show them that they could be either an Avery or a Jessica, neither the film’s faux-documentary format nor its messaging feel that revelatory. This is an attempt at insight that almost does its victim a disservice.
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