“There are two sides to every story.” That proclamation is made multiple times in A Girl Like Her, a devastatingly important film about bullying in a digital age. Told through the lenses of multiple individuals involved with a young girl named Jessica’s (Lexi Ainsworth) attempted suicide, the film employs a documentary style that is not unlike the overused and teen-heavy found footage genre. However, the film uses this reality-grasping mise-en-scene as a means of capturing the essence of teenagers in a digital world. The perspectives employed are startlingly realistic and telling of the toxicity in bullying amongst high school students; the belief that “playful” teasing does not affect the bullied individual is simply foolish and the beliefs of the bullies themselves perpetuated by a doubtful culture. Here, the voyeuristic style allows the everyday scenes and talking heads to feel genuinely realistic; the script isn’t so much a fictional navigation as much as it is testimonials given to actors to read off of cue cards. That’s not meant as a slight to the acting, but rather as evidence of the film’s raw, unbridled power.
The main character in the story is not Jessica, actually, but Avery Keller (Hunter King), a popular sophomore student at South Brookdale High School. Avery and Jessica actually used to be best friends until freshman year, when things mysteriously changed. The school was recently voted one of the top ten schools in the country, and the only public institution included on the list. That’s a tremendous achievement for the high school that brings them a lot of scrutiny, much of which hangs over Jessica’s suicide. This seemingly perfect, normal high school has the same plague and disease that haunts every school: bullying. Avery’s bullying is not like the one from my parents’ generation, and the one that many argue when saying bullying is not a problem in today’s culture. It’s simply terrifying how evolved it has become: in the 1970s and 1980s, when a student returned home from school and remained away from their classmates, would they have to deal with the Internet or texting? Would they use Facebook to keep in touch with their friends or send them Snapchats to keep in touch? The obvious answer is no. Today, when a child returns home from school, the bullying does not end. Girls (and boys, for that matter) can be bullied anywhere, anytime, and seemingly anyhow. Welcome to the wonderful World Wide Web.
The film also looks at Brian (Jimmy Bennett), Jessica’s best friend that encourages her to record all of the goings on around campus so that they can have proof of Avery’s bullying. Jessica’s parents knew nothing of this and, when spending time with their daughter in Intensive Care, deal with the repercussions of another girl’s actions and, perhaps more gravely, her peers’ inactions. Most of the film, though, is viewed through Avery’s conceited yet troubled eyes. She’s a young girl marked by a harmful family environment too, as her mother is a too-involved woman while her father is dealing with unemployment and her brother has proven to be a disappointment. This leaves Avery in a peculiar situation that effectively breeds toxicity; when she stays cooped up in her room all night, she spews vile hate toward Jessica the next day. The film, written and directed by Amy S. Weber, is a compassionate and altogether troubling look at bullying that feels like an advancement from the tremendous doc a few years back, Bully. It stands as a cornerstone of teenagers in the digital age, even if its acting from relative no-names loses a little dramatic impact on the way. The last frame, though, as well as the film’s final piece of dialogue, are hauntingly effective. A Girl Like Her is a surprising film in the early months of 2015, and one of the must-see wide releases of the season.
Grade: ★★★★ (out of 5)