A quasi-documentary approach is combined with the found-footage formula to issue a stern, often hectoring warning against bullying in “A Girl Like Her,” a sincere but heavy-handed tale about a high-school girl goaded into attempting suicide by another who was once her best friend. Earnest and well-intentioned but preachy in the way of an afterschool special and stylistically problematic, Amy S. Weber’s film can perhaps serve a useful educational function, but as drama it’s overwrought and at times almost hysterical.
The overarching portion of the picture is a faux documentary about South Brookdale, a highly regarded public high school, being made by Amy Gallagher (played by Weber, who confines herself to mostly off-screen questions). In the course of filming Gallagher becomes aware that one of the students, Jessica Burns (Lexi Ainsworth), has attempted suicide, and changes her focus to discover why. The answer is that Jessica had been harassed by her former friend Avery Keller (Hunter King), an apparently stereotypical mean girl who used direct intimidation and social network attacks to humiliate and threaten her. The extent of the emotional assault is made clear from footage from a spycam that Jessica’s friend Brian Slater (Jimmy Bennett) had outfitted her with, as well as material he shot himself, and eventually Gallagher will confront Avery with that evidence even as Jessica’s parents (Stephanie Cotton and Mark Boyd) hold vigil in her hospital room.
“A Girl Like Her” tries to get beyond a simple black-and-white depiction of the all-too-familiar terrain of kids hurting kids by trying to understand the source of Avery’s actions, which turns out to center on her overbearing mother (Christie Engle), who leaps to her daughter’s defense when the principal (Michael Maurice) accuses her of misconduct and insists on watching the damning footage with her even though the girl protests. The attempt to fashion a more balanced view than might be expected—down to Avery’s regret over what she’s done (as well as her anger over the loss of friends and influence)—is laudable.
But as much as one might appreciate Weber’s aim, in the end her film doesn’t escape the feel of an elongated sermon, particularly since the performances by soap opera veterans Ainsworth, and especially King, lack subtlety and frequently go over the top. (The same can certainly be said of Engle.) And while one can admire the skill of cinematographer Sam Brownfield in approximating the ragged look of off-the-cuff footage, ironically the conceit has the result of reducing, rather than enhancing, the sense of authenticity Weber’s striving for: it emphasizes the on-the-nose nature of many of the scenes that are supposedly being caught unawares, and of much of the dialogue that’s supposedly being surreptitiously caught. That unfortunate combination of unrefined acting and cumbersome style leads one to wonder whether the story might not have been told to greater effect in a more conventional narrative shorn of the spuriously “real-life” elements.
In interviews about the film, Weber has spoken of the impetus behind it arising from her own life—she was once bullied herself, and later became a bully, perhaps to compensate. That undoubtedly explains the obvious intensity behind the project. But intensity can get out of hand; a degree of distance and restraint is needed in telling even the most deeply personal story. That’s lacking in this instance, and “A Girl Like Her” suffers from its absence.