by Ken Bakely
There may be few more disappointing things in the world of film criticism than having to write a mixed review of a documentary which discusses an urgent subject. By criticizing the film, you feel as if you are criticizing the message within, even though you know that’s not true. But the most important part of writing reviews is to be honest, and so that is the prevailing notion that I take, and one that I continue to take while talking about Jon Shenk and Bonni Cohen’s Audrie & Daisy.
This is a movie seemingly caught between multiple paths – does it want to be an intimate, heartwrenching narrative or a sweeping collation of several stories? Does it want to present the basics and reconstruct a case or take up arms and develop an organized call to action? While there’s nothing preventing a good documentary from touching on more than one overarching frontier, it takes a very specific type of execution that most projects – this one included – can’t pull off without seeming muddled and disorienting.
Audrie & Daisy chronicles the harmful downsides of social media. Anything that is captured on a cell phone and shared online is out there forever. The post may be deleted, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s already been seen. The “Audrie” in the title refers to Audrie Pott, of Saratoga, California, who was sexually assaulted at a party when she was fifteen years old. News of the event spread through the community like wildfire through Facebook and Twitter, and Pott faced heavy fallout from her peers at school. That it she was drunk, and so what happened was assault by merit of it being non-consensual, was irrelevant to many. She felt the darkness was unbearable, and found the unrelenting harassment from others excruciating. Ten days after the party, she committed suicide.
The events leading to Potts’ death echoed a similar case from thousands of miles away, in Maryville, Missouri, in which Daisy Coleman, a girl around the same age at the time, was ostracized after video surfaced of her being sexually assaulted under similar circumstances. Coleman lived, but she and her family were marked with a scarlet letter of sorts, intensified after charges, against the boy accused of raping her, were dropped. Audrie & Daisy uses these examples to pose some piercing questions: Why do we, as a society, allow our biases to grow and infect our minds in such repetitive ways? When will we begin to truly embrace the ideal of justice for all?
Shenk and Cohen do well in reminding us of this odd facet of our collective mindset. In both cases, the boys accused of assault emerged fairly unscathed, but the girls who were assaulted were belittled and criticized with blistering fervor – in Maryville, the county sheriff went so far to assert that he did not believe one could rape an intoxicated person. Audrie & Daisy points out that this kind of belief is startlingly prevalent. Yet the film does so in a disappointingly bleary fashion. It’s caught between examining its namesake stories in the full-on ways they deserve, and pulling back to investigate the deep schisms that rape culture has wrought, as well as looking into the activists trying to usher in a change. This is the kind of wide-ranging scope which would be perfect for a longer movie or a limited series, but it feels rather haphazard at 98 minutes.
There’s nothing bad to be said about the reverence and the thoroughness of Shenk and Cohen’s approach. They unravel us by simply presenting the facts. It’s clear how horrific these events are, and they needn’t artificially vamp up the emotion to get the point across. They never selfishly provoke in a search for more lurid details which could have been exploited to the point of sensationalism. This alone marks Audrie & Daisy as a significantly more sound and respectful documentary than the mess that a lot of other filmmakers would have made from it.
Yet my comments are not an endorsement of withholding a more powerful point of view. Audrie & Daisy could leave an impact far more indelible if it honed in on its titular subjects. When Shenk and Cohen begin splicing around with a less precise aim, it’s harder to for the film to work as well. However, when it succeeds, you’d be hard pressed not to feel it. This is seen whenever the picture truly dives into the deep end, and shows us the ramifications of our broken way of looking at things and the real effects it has on real people. There’s nowhere to hide. These are the painful realities of our supposedly equal society. The fallacies come crashing down. It’s all rather hard to watch, yet absolutely necessary to understand. Therefore, it’s all the more regrettable that the movie doesn’t stay on this path a little more frequently.