Sometimes a film is homework. The 2013 documentary, Valentine Road is not for the faint-hearted. Then again, perhaps it is, because tender hearts may well be the solution to the complex social issues we must come to terms with in our diverse society. If there’s a message in this powerful film, it may be that we cannot look away from the pain around us. The act of viewing the film may itself be an act of courage when it is far easier to engage in mindless entertainment. There were many times during the two hours of viewing that I paused to reflect, walk away and rest my mind, yet I was compelled to return to story again and again. The filmmakers asks us to confront our collective tolerance for violence as well as our intolerance of the often-superficial differences that entirely separate us from one another through conscious and unconscious biases.
Valentine Road carefully turns over the fibers of a small community grappling with its identity after one child kills another child. It asks us to see each child with compassion, to recognize the total annihilation of the spirit of hope when violent acts transpire. Not only are our children, the unwitting actors in the transmission of social norms, hurt, but so are our families, friends and teachers, when blood is shed. We are crushed in the aftermath of the wars within. There are no sides to choose in Valentine Road; instead, we are called to witness the human condition with unceremonious frankness. “Watch, and see,” the film seems to say.
Still, Valentine Road is much more than a measured glance at the mistakes of others; it also tells a story about what happens when good people respond to differences by stepping into the comfortable mantel of the status quo—whatever it may be.
A misunderstanding between eighth-graders becomes a showdown.
This is a cautionary story about how when children cry out for help and support and can’t find it, they withdraw and learn to rely on and resort to the tools of power, which are too often violent. Turn it over on the other side, and it is a story about how the human spirit flourishes when love and light are shined on an individual, empowering him to embrace himself and explore his identity.
This is about what happens when you give an angry baby a gun.
The law has responded punitively to gun use by minors, trying them as adults, but the law is the same vehicle that perpetuates gun violence, continuing to tolerate them on our streets. The proliferation of guns in our society means they exist in many homes, giving children easy access to weapons when there is an emotional urge. Sadly, children act impulsively, and are driven by surging hormones and unpredictable emotions. They are ill equipped to make thoughtful decisions in resolving complex problems. They need caring adults to guide, teach and protect them. Wouldn’t it be nice if every child had a caring adult to talk to?
This tale will haunt you because it’s subtly expresses and exposes the profound prejudices people harbor in their hearts, along with the perfect justifications that accompany them. There is a moment when the people in the film become us, and we can no longer distance ourselves from their beliefs and choices. Their narratives become ours, and it forces us to look at our belief systems and determine whether they are valid. For this reason, the film left me unsettled in my opinions. That is one of its strengths: the ability to fully embrace liminality. The director, Marta Cunningham, skillfully renders the gray areas that comprise the larger part of this episode: how uncomfortable we are when people step outside of proscribed norms—racial, sexual, gendered or otherwise. She reveals how we are still unwilling or unable to allow differences to coexist in public places.
This is a wake-up call for us to interrupt—behaviors, our lives, the stifling inertia—and take a stand even when we’re afraid. I’m reminded of what Father Paul Keenan defines as the “soul’s calling,” a perfect opportunity to “bring eternity and daily life together in mutual compassion and gracious action.” In these times, answering a “soul’s calling” is an awakening and no small act. When we are strong, acting with courage, conviction and compassion, the violence that shatters lives when it cuts down our youth can be the energy of transformation. So if you watch Valentine Road, know your heart will break. Invite it. Open yourself to include more. Allow the pain to touch you, and bring it back home to the people you love, transformed into understanding and openness.