Thursday, October 10, 2013


Lawrence "Larry" King was a small boy known for wearing high heels and make-up. His eighth grade schoolmates in Oxnard CA thought of him as an oddball, although those close to him remember him as a sweet boy with a kind heart. Brandon McInerney was an angry kid who drew pictures of Nazis and enjoyed yelling racial slurs at people.  One day in 2008, Larry flirted with Brandon.  The next day, Brandon brought a pistol to school and shot Larry in the head. Twice.

The story was ideal for news coverage, partly because it could be boiled down to a single loaded headline: "Teen skinhead kills teen transvestite." To the credit of Marta Cunningham's   Valentine Road, the sensationalistic aspects of the case are touched on, but they serve as a springboard to a very complex and sad story. But Cunningham also knows that the parties involved will be what sells the documentary. Since there is no home movie footage of Larry, we see him in only a few still photos and animated clips which show him dressed in a green ball gown and heels. The animators make him look like Tinkerbell. The first picture we see of Brandon , though, is startling; his eyes are hateful and he seems to be growling into the camera. Midway through the film it's revealed that Brandon was fascinated by the German SS and filled notebooks with drawings of Nazi symbols. Larry liked to crochet and sing. Had they never crossed paths, Larry probably would have gone into designing clothes. That appeared to be his passion. Brandon would have ended up in jail for something. He seemed wired for violence.

Cunningham rounds up nearly everyone involved for this documentary, including teachers, friends, jurors, attorneys, and relatives. Brandon's girlfriend declares her love for him, and says he's the only person she'd ever marry "because he's the only one who ever cared." This is juxtaposed with clips of Brandon attacking kids. But many in the film, usually women, seem to have a soft spot for the little terror. Even teachers excuse his Nazi interest as just a "boy thing." His notebook of Nazi drawings? Harmless doodles. His defense attorney gets a "Save Brandon" tattoo on her arm. In a particularly bizarre scene, a gaggle of female jurors commiserate after the trial and talk about their warm feelings for Brandon.

It's stunning to think Brandon has a single supporter, but many in the film insist Larry had provoked Brandon by flirting with him. They stop just short of calling Larry a filthy queer who deserved what he got, but that's the creeping subtext of their comments. One teacher, while showing off her collection of swords and weaponry, says all Larry needed was a good kick in the pants.   Another teacher, one who indulged Larry's interest in female clothing, was fired and ended up working in a Starbucks. When one of Larry's friends tries to put up a monument in his memory, she's not allowed to put his name on it. The town doesn't want to draw more attention to the case. Oxnard looks bad in this movie.

The film will no doubt inspire some heated discussions. It's an infuriating story. It's also a sad tale of two boys from unhealthy environments. Larry was an orphan. Brandon was brought up by a drug addled mother and a violent father. Larry wanted to be himself, but was too brazen and immature to understand the possible consequences. Brandon was also immature, the sort of lost kid who is drawn to the skinhead life because he simply wants to belong somewhere. Brandon's attorneys  come off as misguided do-gooders, but they may have a point in that a 14 year-old shouldn't be tried as an adult and shouldn't receive a life sentence. But when one of them declares her unabashed love for Brandon, she loses credibility, and illustrates how easy it is for Brandon's supporters to forget that he deliberately killed a boy.

Cunningham, who had worked as a dancer and actor before making this documentary, does a good job with a prickly subject. She managed to get some dumb people to agree to be in her film, and she smartly stands back and lets them say some incredibly stupid things. When they see the movie, they won't even realize how backward and criminal they are in their thinking. Cunningham's only misstep are a few too many scenes of local gay teens talking about how horrible it is in Oxnard, and how it could've easily been them on the floor bleeding to death  instead of Larry. These scenes felt a bit heavy-handed and prolonged, and weren't necessary to establish the tragedy of the story.

Late in Valentine Road, a smiling and confident Brandon McInerney is shown receiving his high school diploma in prison.  Who knows what kind of man he will be? He  wrote a letter of apology to the teacher whose classroom witnessed the shooting. His letter sounds slightly self-important, as he offers to help the teacher get over the trauma of the murder. What a nice guy, eh?

* * *
Kyle Patrick Alvarez' C.O.G. is based on an essay by David Sedaris, a unique writer who has earned a cult following with his dryly told memoirs. Sedaris can cripple you with a one liner, and has a knack for making readers feel his anguish at having to be in the company of brutes and rubes.  At times, we remember the jokes, but not the stories, such is the power of his wit. (My personal favorite Sedaris line, and I'm paraphrasing, is when he described his family crest as a martini and a brain tumor; I do not remember the story, but the line is in my head permanently.) The first movie treatment based on his work comes close to capturing Sedaris' tone, but it's probably more downbeat than Sedaris' fans would imagine.
C.O.G. is about a young man named David (Jonathan Groff) who has left his Connecticut family behind to pick apples in Oregon. He had planned to do this on a lark with a female friend, but she dumped him before they even started.  He's not in a hurry to go back home, having become estranged from his mother, so he embarks on a solo journey into apple country. Unfortunately, David is bookish and gay, two things that don't sit well with his co-workers. He ends up befriending John (Denis O'Hare) a recovering alcoholic Christian go-getter with a hot temper. After a few misadventures, David kneels in John's church and accepts Jesus. But no sooner does David appear to be happy, John turns on him for petty reasons.
There are some amusing scenes - David's bus ride to Oregon is probably the movie's best set piece, as he's seated next to a psychotic woman graphically recounting her horrific breakup with her boyfriend - and there are memorable performances from O'Hare as the mercurial Jesus follower, and Corey Stall as a gay bruiser who likes David but intimidates him with his collection of dildos. (Stall played Ernest Hemingway in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris; he is a very good actor.) 
The film suffers a bit because everyone David meets is either a rapist, a thief, a redneck, or a bible thumper. Apparently there's not a single nice person in Oregon's apple country. Also, Groff is supposed to be the film's center, but he's too passive. He's constantly whining that no one likes him, but he doesn't give them a reason to like him. I guess we're supposed to empathize with him because he's so "misunderstood," but it's hard to like a kid who is so clueless that he sits at a lunch table full of itinerant apple pickers and assumes they want to hear about his time in Japan.  In Sedaris' hands, the "David" character would've been more comical, and would've known in retrospect that his actions were goofy. Sedaris often tells his stories with the perspective of time and wisdom; in the film, "David" comes off a bit too self-possessed, and the people around him are too easily dismissed as villains.

I was far more interested in O'Hare's character, a man who has turned to religion but has yet to see the upside. I like the way he's always optimistic, even as his plans fail, and how his occasional temper tantrums reveal what he must've been like before finding Jesus. He's the most interesting character in the movie, but he's portrayed as just another oddball in David's life.  He's also a religious homophobe, which is current cinema's lazy shorthand for "bad guy." Still, I wanted to know more about him. When he and David go their separate ways, I was more concerned about John.  David's experiment in the apple country failed, but he would eventually be fine. Hell, he'd grow up to be David Sedaris,  sell a bunch of books and live in Europe. John, though, seemed to have a world of pain waiting for him.
I once saw David Sedaris in person at a Borders bookstore. He read one of his stories, and then did a strange imitation of Billie Holiday singing the Oscar Mayer wiener song. He's clever and knows how to work a crowd. I wish more of his humor found its way into C.O.G.  As is, the film is good in spots, and might inspire more directors to adapt Sedaris' work.

Valentine Road is currently on HBO; C.O.G. is in theaters and available on most VOD platforms.

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