By Caroline Madden
Stories about bullying are typically told through hard-hitting documentaries or tear-jerking dramas; Amy S. Weber’s A Girl Like Her combines both genres in a completely inventive way. Weber cleverly reframes the bully narrative by using the mockumentary and found footage formats. Lexi Ainsworth plays Jessica, a quiet girl with a sweet demeanor that makes her an easy target for the vicious and perfectly-manicured Avery (Hunter King), the most popular girl in school. The blonde ice queen is backed by a group of loyal subjects who take part in mercilessly bullying Jessica. Jessica’s only reprieve is her friend Brian (Jimmy Bennett) and loving parents (Mark Boyd and Stephanie Cotton). Ainsworth compellingly captures the aching sadness and shame that Jessica works so hard to conceal. Her isolation and despair in the face of such relentless abuse is palpable.
The tense opening sequence is shot from the perspective of a body camera on Jessica. She takes a handful of pills and falls to the ground. A Girl Like Her travels through time to piece together what led Jessica to consider suicide. Playing herself (but mostly off-camera), Weber structures the film around the idea that she is creating a documentary about South Brookdale High being named one of the country’s best public schools. When Jessica ends up in a coma after attempting suicide, the documentary shifts its focus onto understanding why.
Weber mixes her own recordings with secret footage given to her from Brian. Brian reveals that he gave Jessica a body cam disguised as a dragonfly pin, and he also shot his own footage so that Jessica would have visual proof of Avery’s cruelty. A Girl Like Her gives the audience a first-person perspective on what it is like to be bullied; through Jessica’s eyes, we receive a barrage of nasty texts and emails and endure verbal taunts and physical assaults. This is a clever conceit that puts viewers in a victim’s shoes, forcing them to intimately confront the dire ramifications of bullying. Weber interlaces her own investigation and recovery of past footage with nerve-wracking and emotionally wrought scenes in the hospital where Jessica’s life hangs on the balance. She also goes behind the scenes of school meetings with enraged parents trying to make sense of what happened, giving voice to the debates surrounding what responsibility school authorities have to look out for their students and stop bullying.
When rumors begin swirling that Avery caused Jessica’s suicide attempt, Weber decides to get her side of the story by giving her a camera to record video diaries. Weber befriends Avery instead of demonizing her so that she can try to understand why the harassment took place. This compassion makes A Girl Like You a unique entry in the bullying film canon. Avery has a cushy yet empty home life with parents who passive-aggressively fight and a brother that plays video games all day. Her mother is more concerned with appearing like a domestic goddess in front of the cameras than truly caring for her daughter.
One of the best parts of the film is when Avery is forced to confront her monstrous behavior. Hunter King delivers an astonishing performance that manages to drum up sympathy for such an insidious character. She conveys Avery’s emotional meltdown with heart-wrenching honesty. Her perfect facade crumbles away before the audience’s eyes to reveal herself as more than just a one-dimensional mean girl.
Weber makes A Girl Like Her feel like an authentic documentary by bleeping out curse words and blurring some teenagers’ faces as if their parents did not give permission to be filmed. The costumes and locations bring to life upper and middle-class suburbia in a believable way. Weber’s brilliant use of a fictional documentary effectively amplifies the dangers of bullying. She encourages audiences to examine the root of bullying in order to prevent it. A Girl Like Her should be required viewing for all teenagers and parents, opening important discussions on anti-bullying initiatives–especially after the poignant ending. With a dedicated ensemble and taut pace, Weber’s timely film is gripping and takes the bullying narrative to new emotional heights. Now playing on Fandor.