You'll need a strong stomach for some of the scenes in A Girl Like Her, one of the most moving and intelligent of the recent glut of films and TV specials about teenage bullying.
Oh, there's no violence or gore in writer-director Amy S. Weber's exploration of the world of girl-on-girl victimization - unless you count the intense emotional wounds that the heroine, high school sophomore Jessica Burns (Lexi Ainsworth) suffers at the claws of her tormentor, Avery Keller (Hunter King), and her posse of popular girls.
A Girl Like Her is genuinely harrowing by virtue of its realistic portrayal of the social pressures that weigh on teens and of the herd mentality that impels them to become passive accomplices in bullying. Weber's second feature is a revelatory study of the psychology of victim and perpetrator alike.
Think of it as Mean Girls, but with brains. And heart. And true social conscience.
Weber (Annabelle & Bear) makes smart choices here, not least of which is to frame A Girl Like Her as a faux documentary, injecting a much-needed ironic distance between the action and the viewer. We get to experience the full emotional weight of the story without being enveloped in the warm comforts of sentiment alone. A fine piece of social critique, A Girl Like Her leaves us disturbed, irritated, angry. It motivates.
The story opens with news that Jessica and Avery's public high school has been ranked 10th best in the country, piquing the interest of documentary filmmaker Amy Gallagher (director Weber in a most unobtrusive cameo). Given full access to the school, Amy and her crew arrive to find one of the sophomores is in critical condition after a suicide attempt.
Through a nicely edited series of on-camera interviews with students and staff, Amy pieces together Jessica's story: For six months, the 16-year-old has been the target of an intense campaign of terror devised by Avery.
Ainsworth, 22 (Chosen, General Hospital), is wonderful as Jessica, a bright, friendly, fully engaged girl who comes across as anything but a typical victim.
Once a close friend, Avery is rich, beautiful, and immensely popular, and she brushes off mounting rumors that she's to blame for Jessica's plunge into depression. That is, until Jessica's best friend, Brian (Jimmy Bennett), gives the film crew hundreds of hours of spy-cam footage that captured the bullying.
The footage is heartbreaking.
A Girl Like Her takes another smart and surprising turn not only by engaging with Jessica's story, but also by exploring deeply and effectively Avery's circumstances and her inner life.
Unlike so much of what passes for social commentary, Weber's film is an honest reflection of a social ill, not a fantasy that lets us off the hook by offering easy, fanciful solutions.
It won't let you walk away unscathed.
A Girl Like Her ***1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by Amy S. Weber.
With Lexi Ainsworth, Hunter King,
Jimmy Bennett, Jon W. Martin. Distributed by ParkSide Releasing.
Running time: 1 hour, 32 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (profanity, sexual references, disturbing thematic material involving teens).
Playing at: Area theaters.EndText