A Girl Like Her starts on a note of exploitative ugliness, and never recovers. This film is the nadir of the “fake documentary” genre: it has absolutely nothing interesting to say, and instead it aspires to manipulate the audience with mean-spirited tactics. Writer/director Amy S. Weber tries to sidestep the inherent flaws of her premise with a smarmy perspective, one that goes through the motions of compassion, so she fails to inspire anything effective or genuine. She has zero interest in character development or dialogue, and her actors merely serve as avatars for an unearned argument that lacks nuance or any understanding of human behavior. The only emotion this film will provoke is contempt.
Weber begins with a staple of the sub-genre, an overlong explanation of how the character film themselves. Teenager Brian (Jimmy Bennett) gives his best friend Jessica (Lexi Ainsworth) a hidden camera, and we watch shots of her in an idyllic, suburban high school. Then the camera fixates on Jessica while she’s sobbing in bed, and with a queasy first person perspective, she takes her mother’s sleeping pills and attempts suicide. That the suicide attempt, complete with a long take of Jessica sobbing on the floor after she’s taken the pills, happens within the first five minutes is the film’s first significant blunder: I’ve never seen a more brazen, cynical attempt to force sympathy. The hidden-camera perspective did not make me feel sorry for Jessica; it made me feel sorry for the actors. Suicide is a horrible act, often defined by disturbing intimacy, so imagine for a moment that this is a real documentary and you’ll feel sick to your stomach, disturbed by the filmmaker’s intrusion.
Jessica survives the suicide attempt, and remains in a coma for most of the film. The plurality of the action is set around the high school, and the conceit lacks credibility: a documentary filmmaker named Amy (Weber) wants to portray life at the school – it was ranked as one of the nation’s best – but she shifts her interest after Jessica is in the hospital. The Amy character invades the privacy of her subjects, in one implausible scene after another, and it does not work because there’s no attempt to build “trust” among the collaborators (The Office got away with it because it earned the laugh, and took its time to reveal the filmmakers). Amy hears rumors that Jessica was bullied, and turns her attention to Avery (Hunter King), a popular girl. By jumping back and forth before the suicide attempt and its aftermath, we realize Avery is the sadistic bully in question, and Amy’s camera follows her, attempting sympathy for her as well.
There is nothing inherently wrong with looking at the cyclical effect of bullying. The trouble is A Girl Like Her barely skims the issue, and hides shallowness with repetitive, trashy footage of Avery at her worst. There’s a crucial sequence where we watch Avery harass Jessica – physically and verbally abusing her – and Weber overstates it into an abyss of sadism (post-production censors Avery’s four-letter words in order to preserve a PG13 rating). Weber’s only real observation is that kids today use multiple channels for bullying, including the Internet and social media, although that’s neither meaningful nor new.
In between the bullying, there are also agonizing scenes where we see Jessica and Avery’s respective families, and the drama is so maudlin/familiar it’s embarrassing. Perhaps Weber wanted her characters to appear so broad they would have an everyman quality. Still, there is no specificity of behavior here, only footage that looks like MTV’s True Life and TMZ at their most invasive. The overwhelming banality of Weber’s craft would not bother me if the “Amy” character was not such an obvious sycophant. Her character makes wholly unethical choices – she plainly manipulates Avery, without consulting her family first – and her feigned concern over these kids is no excuse.
Mean Girls and Heathers have more to say about bullying than A Girl Like Her, and not just because they were filmed with energy, wit, and compassion. In fact, this Key and Peele sketch has more insight in two minutes than A Girl Like Her Does has in eighty. But for all its pandering, for all its condescending attempt to engage our emotions and not our intelligence, the film veers into off the rails in its conclusion. During a protracted, insincere confession, Avery finally cops to being a bully. She’s thankful for the hidden camera footage Amy shows her, since she otherwise would not have the self-awareness to acknowledge her past cruelty. In other words, filmmaker Amy Weber gives the “Amy” character a fucking pat on the back for creating this fake documentary, just so a fake character could be thankful for her empathy, as well as her solution to the bullying cycle. Most bullies are not as lucky as Avery.
It takes a special kind of megalomaniac to make a fictionalized documentary about a complex, real social issue, and posit that they are the answer to it. Not even propagandists have that kind of ego. A Girl Like Her is nothing more than shameful, uninspired trash.