The term “bullying” is invoked so quickly and so often these days, we’re in danger of losing the true definition.
Someone gets five negative tweets, and claims to be a victim of “cyber-bullying.” Someone receives a critical e-mail and says, “You’re bullying me!”
Monica Lewinsky gave a powerful and moving speech about “political bullying” at the TED talks and claimed to be the “Patient Zero” of online shame. No doubt she was the subject of much ridicule, but was she really “bullied”?
No doubt adults can be the victims of bullying. But when you’re 30 or 40 or 50 or even 22, you should be better equipped to defend yourself than a seventh grader or a high school sophomore. When I think of “bullying,” I think of all those stories we’ve seen about kids who are devastated, who feel terrified in their own school, who are driven to suicide attempts by other kids who harass them at school, in e-mails, via texts and through every form of social media imaginable.
That’s the crux of “A Girl Like Her,” writer-director Amy S. Weber’s timely, insightful and at times deeply moving mockumentary-style film about the devastating effects of bullying.
On the surface, high school sophomore Jessica Burns (Lexi Ainsworth) is having the typical teen experience. She’s neither super popular nor is she an outcast. She’s a smart, lovely, cheerful girl with a supportive family. She loves hanging out with her best friend Brian (Jimmy Bennett).
But inside, Jessica feels like she’s dying. Nearly every day at school, the beautiful and popular Avery (Hunter King) physically and verbally abuses Jessica — and it doesn’t stop with the end of the school day. Avery sends Jessica endless e-mails and texts, telling her she’s ugly, she’s worthless and she should do everyone a favor and kill herself.
Brian persuades Jessica to wear a hidden-camera pendant all the time, to capture the harassment from Jessica’s point of view. He also uses his own hand-held camera night and day.
Meanwhile (and a little too conveniently from the storytelling arc), a documentary crew is at school every day because it has just been named one of the top public institutions in the country.
So with the hidden cam, Brian’s cam and the documentary crew, “A Girl Like Her” is a “found footage” film. At times this works to great advantage, though it stretches credibility. More than once, it’s difficult to believe certain characters in certain situations wouldn’t just tell the documentary team to turn off the cameras and get out.
In more pain than even her best friend realizes, Jessica can’t take it any more. She tries to commit suicide and falls into a coma. Her parents are of course devastated — and at a complete loss as to why Jessica would deliberately overdose. Rumors start swirling that Jessica was the victim of bullying, but nobody’s talking. (Brian is torn because he has all this video of Avery tormenting Jessica, but she made him promise he would never show anyone, no matter what.)
Weber makes the wise choice to show us Avery’s home life, which provides much insight into Avery’s behavior while not making any excuses for her. Suffice to say the girl with the “perfect” life who thought nothing of systematically breaking down a classmate is in serious need of immediate help.
“A Girl Like Her” benefits greatly from the excellent performances from the three main leads. Lexi Ainsworth is such a winning presence when she’s happing hanging with Brian, and so heartbreaking when she’s weeping from the pain Avery is inflicting upon her. Hunter King is believably despicable as the prototypical Mean Girl, but we DO feel empathy for Avery as she begins to realize the depths of the destruction she caused. Jimmy Bennett does a fine job as Brian, the loyal friend who wishes he could have done more.
It’s hard to imagine anyone seeing this film and not feeling the weight of the heartbreak when a young girl’s life is destroyed by bullying, and outrage that even with all the awareness and all the campaigning, bullying remains an epidemic in schools everywhere.