What was your initial reaction on first seeing Lizzie Velásquez?
Was it revulsion? Fear? Pity?
Or love, curiosity, compassion?
The 26-year-old author and motivational speaker, whose story is told in Sara Bordo's uplifting, if at times cloying, documentary A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velásquez Story, suffers from a rare congenital disease that prevents her from gaining weight. Blind in one eye and impossibly thin at 58 pounds, she has been picked on and bullied since childhood. Resilient, fiercely intelligent, and possessed of a disarming sense of humor, Velásquez became an anti-bullying activist when, at age 17, she came across footage of herself on YouTube video titled "The World's Ugliest Woman."
So, what was your first, unguarded thought?
While I imagine a more evolved person such as the Dalai Lama might react to her with love (as he would to any other person), most of us, trained as we are to judge the world according to the dictates of Vogue, Playboy, and Keeping Up with the Kardashians, probably would react differently.
It's a sad and monstrous admission. Not everyone meets the world with the unconditional openness of Christ or the Buddha. But the civilized, reflective, morally aware among us - and that tends to be the majority of people - immediately check our repulsive negativity with guilt and shame, and recover our humanity. That's precisely what Velásquez addresses in her books and her talks - that divide between our first reaction and our recovery. She does so with rare patience and understanding.
A Brave Heart traces Velásquez's transformation from a potential victim to an inspirational public figure. The daughter of a remarkably supportive Austin, Texas, couple, she countered the cruel video with a series of articulate posts on her own YouTube channel. She went on to publish an autobiography and delivered a talk at TEDxAustinWomen about self-image that went viral.
Using home videos, interviews, and footage from lectures, Bordo's film also follows Velásquez's personal journey. She deals with health issues; her condition went undiagnosed for years, and she continues to be subjected to endless tests and medical exams.
For all its upbeat energy, though, A Brave Heart remains remarkably shallow. It celebrates Velásquez's growing celebrity, yet fails to examine how fame makes the activist subject to the same media machinery that endorses physical beauty as the ultimate goal.
Bordo's film is equally uncritical when it comes to Velásquez's work to introduce anti-bullying legislation that is so broad, so unfocused, it's all but meaningless.
The overall effect, however, is salutary. Velásquez is a remarkable individual, and her message should not go unheeded.
A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velásquez Story **1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by Sara Bordo. Distributed by Cinedigm.
Running time: 1 hour, 28 mins.
Parent's guide: No MPAA rating (thematic elements involving bullying, profanity).
Playing at: AMC Neshaminy 24.