REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER
For Digital First Media
Have you ever been bullied? Have you ever been a bully? “A Girl Like Her” offers an interesting perspective on the subject.
Bullying takes many forms. Sometimes, it is incidental and without any lasting consequence. Other examples, such as fraternity hazing and certain initiation rites, may be ritualized and involve twisted acts of overt sadism.
In recent years, bullying has become a hotly-debated issue. Some have dismissed bullying in all its forms, as an unavoidable part of the human condition. Others have decried it as a pernicious social phenomenon. On occasion, bullying has been cited as the precipitous for teen suicide and even led to criminal prosecutions.
Although “A Girl Like Her” is fictional, it has the look and feel of a documentary. Unlike various other faux documentaries, this film has achieved a hard-earned sense of verisimilitude.
As “A Girl Like Her” opens, everything seems to be copacetic. South Brookdale High School has just been cited as one of the best secondary schools in the United States. This is a particularly laudable achievement since it is one of the only public schools delineated on the list.
A documentary film crew visits the school to study what makes it so special. In anticipation of receiving a celebratory puff piece, the school officials grant them unlimited access to the student body.
The documentary film crew is headed by Amy Gallagher (the film’s actual writer/director, Amy Weber), who is never seen and only heard on a few select occasions. Her spare dialogue is unobtrusive and facilitative of the narrative.
Is there something less flattering beneath the surface? If so, will the film crew uncover what it is?
The film approaches one of the school’s most popular sophomores, Avery Keller (Hunter King), and her cadre of three principal cronies. In preliminary discussions with the documentarian, Avery bemoans the challenges of being popular. According to Avery, it creates demands in her, which pose a profound imposition. Oh – poor little Avery.
The formulation of Avery’s character deviates from the prevailing stereotype. She is certainly not the idealized vision of aesthetic perfection. Instead, Avery is only vaguely attractive and a little bit chunky. As we soon discover, Avery isn’t blessed with articulation or intelligence. Moreover, she is not a cheerleader. Avery tried out for the squad, but was cut. Similarly, Avery’s sidekicks are somewhat attractive, but none of them are gorgeous. Avery’s lack of the customary qualifications for popularity makes her status as a queen bee all the more interesting. How did she and her bffs end up on the apex of the social hierarchy? Is it just a function of their sheer zeal for status?
It turns out that one of the school’s other coeds, Jessica Burns (Lexi Ainsworth), has attempted suicide by ingesting an overdose of prescription medications. She was rushed to the hospital, where she remains in a coma. Jessica hails from a closely-knit family, replete with a pair of supportive parents and a younger sister, who adores Jessica. Although she doesn’t have a peer reference group, Jessica enjoys a platonic, albeit apparently fulfilling, relationship with a male classmate, Brian Slater (Jimmy Bennett). In interviews with various students, Jessica is described as quiet, but generally well-liked. What drove her to despair? Did Avery have anything to do with it?
None of the cast are readily recognizable, except perhaps to devotees of soap operas. This obviates any distraction arising from famous faces. The principal roles are all exquisitely well-cast and well-acted. Lexi Ainsworth and Jimmy Bennett are extremely sympathetic. In a less appealing role, Hunter King is also effective. The supporting players all seem like real people, not actors.
Amy Weber previously made only one other feature film, the little seen “Annabelle & Bear.” Her follow-up effort reflects considerable talent.
“A Girl Like Her” is infused with intelligence and sensitivity. It assiduously avoids reducing the matter to simplistic terms or becoming emotionally overwrought. The heartfelt film constitutes a clarion call for a re-examination of the dynamics and consequences of bullying.
It’s true that this subject matter of bullying has been the focus of numerous other works. However, “A Girl Like Her” is like no other film you’ve seen before.
*** 1/2 PG-13 (profanity, sexual references, disturbing thematic material involving teens) 92 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year, he welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.