When I was in high school, I often dreamed of directing films that would make kids my age feel less alone in the world. Adolescence can be a time of such oppressive alienation that works of art mirroring your own experience become more crucial than ever. That is precisely the sort of film writer/director Amy S. Weber has made with her second feature, “A Girl Like Her.” I streamed the film on Netflix purely out of curiosity and it ended up leaving me in tears. Lexi Ainsworth is heartbreaking as Jessica, a bullied teen who’s encouraged by her friend (Jimmy Bennett) to wear a hidden camera in order to capture the abuse she routinely receives from mean girl Avery (Hunter King).
With a background in advertising and teaching, Weber founded the Radish Creative Group, a production company that spawned from her desire to unite education and film production. Radish released “A Girl Like Her” last year, and the film has gone on to find a wide audience on various online platforms. As the next school year begins later this month, the film is guaranteed to provide comfort and catharsis to students across the country. Indie Outlook spoke with Weber about the personal experiences that inspired “A Girl Like Her,” her first feature (“Annabelle & Bear”) and her desire to shift the conversation on bullying.
What led you from the realm of advertising into an educational career?
I think that it’s just a desire inside of me to give something back. You spend your youth glorifying a lot of different career paths, and for me, I always wanted to serve in some way, mostly by working with youth. I mentored youth even when I was a young person myself, and it was that ongoing passion that led me to realize early in my advertising career that I wouldn’t be able to tell the types of stories or touch the lives that I wanted to. I worked at a very large agency that did a lot of automotive advertising. Everyone I worked with was 40 plus, most of them were men, and a lot of them had screenplays and novels stuffed in their drawers. You could see that they were stuck in what they were doing. Their true passion was to write, but copywriting is what paid the bills. I was young enough to let go of that kind of money and everything that went with it, including shrimp cocktails at lunchtime. I wanted to make a difference, and if that meant I wasn’t going to make that kind of money in my life anymore, then so be it.
There’s a distinctly human touch that characterizes your work. I admired the candid confessions as well as the irreverent humor in your PSA reel.
That’s what I strive for in my work, and I think that’s why my clients work with me. The stories that I tell have to be genuine. Otherwise, I can’t be a part of it. I don’t fight a lot of battles. I collaborate a lot creatively, and I’m very open to when people voice their own ideas or criticisms, but the one thing that I will always fight for is authenticity. Humor is really the only exception to that rule. We always base the humor in truth, but we love taking it past the line of believability.
Your 2010 feature debut, “Annabelle & Bear,” cast Curt Massof—a member of the art department on “Terminator 2” and “Edward Scissorhands”—as the father of a young girl, played by Olivia Walby.
When I wrote the role of Bear, Curt was editing for me. He was a student of mine when I taught at a broadcasting school in Detroit, and we connected years after he had graduated. When I came up with the story for “Annabelle & Bear,” he was always who I had in mind. I didn’t know if he could act, so when I talked to him about it, I prepped him to audition. I still held open auditions, but no one could touch that role. Curt has such a sensitivity to him. He looks like a big old biker, and he can be very intimidating on the outside, but Curt is one of the sweetest human beings I’ve ever met. Bear is an introvert, and his quietness is what makes him so vulnerable and so lovable. Olivia was only two-and-a-half years old when we shot this movie. We did a lot of improv, though the dialogue was always there. She and Curt had a very special bond that is apparent when you see the film.
There has been talk about remaking that film one day. It was my first film, and I shot it locally with local talent out of Detroit. I thought that they did a phenomenal job, but there have been some people who have come into my life that have motivated me to consider remaking it with a more known cast. It is such a beautiful and healing story about how this little soul and this big lost soul find each other and save each other. They just happen to be father and daughter, and we don’t get to see a lot of that, especially in a broken home that has been corrupted and poisoned by drugs. When we took this movie out to festivals, it was mind-blowing how people gravitated to it.
I remember one festival in particular, the Saugatuck [now Waterfront] Film Festival, where they had films with Bill Murray and Kevin Kline and Katie Holmes. Our movie played Friday night to a sold-out crowd, and we weren’t going to stay for the screening scheduled on Sunday, which was the last day of the festival. Then somebody called and told us that we needed to come to the location where was film playing. We pulled up and there was a line wrapped around the building. Our film was the only one playing at the venue. It was shocking to us. I think that we did something right with the film, and I think that Olivia steals the show. I would put her performance up against any child actor in the history of film.
I’m curious about the origins of your second feature, “A Girl Like Her.” As someone who personally dealt with bullying in school, I realized that insecurity was fueling the behavior of both the bullies and their victims.
I have personal experiences with both. When I was very young, I was bullied and abused by a classmate of mine. It was a boy in my kindergarten class, and the abuse started when I would go to his house after school and play. He would threaten me if I didn’t do what he wanted me to do, and that led to physical violence. He would lock me in trundle beds, shove me in closets and he wouldn’t let me out. He’d just laugh. It was hard because the adult that I went to for help was his mom. She told me that he was probably just fooling around, and that she couldn’t see him ever doing that. “He just adores you,” she’d tell me. One day at his house, my mom drove by, asking if I wanted a ride home. I didn’t answer fast enough and she drove away. The boy got so angry with me that he threw me down face first onto the cement and damaged my four front teeth. When we moved a year later, I was determined that no one would ever pick on me again.
I became a fighter, and I would only fight boys. I don’t know what overcame me. I was a pretty hyper kid and I had a lot of strength that most people couldn’t explain. I was very feared, and that reputation stayed with me up until junior high. During those years, I realized that I didn’t know if people really liked me or if they were just afraid of me and wanted me on their side. I had so much pain that I couldn’t talk about, and being a lesbian, I knew that I was different as well. All I was ever celebrated for was my athleticism in sports. I never really felt grounded in my own skin, so I wouldn’t allow people to see my vulnerable side. Although I wasn’t like Avery in how she targets one person to bully, it was known that if you messed with me, you would most likely get hurt. Bullying is obviously different nowadays because of social media, but the pain is still very much the same.
This film was very healing for me on both sides. It has helped me reach out to people who I had hurt in the past—either by saying something mean to them or hitting them or just making them feel small. There’s been a couple of moments where I’ve been able to sit and hug those people and apologize to them. I’ve found that you tend to forget about the bullying you’ve committed, but the victims never forget it. I’ve had men in their 70’s see the film and tell me stories about getting bullied in their youth as if it happened yesterday. The film enabled me to forgive myself for the things that I did, and also forgive what happened to me as a kid.
I was moved to tears by the sequence where Avery is forced to view her own bullying from the perspective of Jessica’s hidden camera. How did you come up with this idea?
The storyline came after a year of contemplating how to best produce a series that could possibly help change or shift the conversation on bullying by looking at the bullies themselves. Through the work I’ve done with kids and the educational films I’ve made over the last 20 years, youth has been a major focus for me, and the commonality between all races, ages and genders is pain. It is pain that we—as a society, as parents and educators—have dumped on our kids, causing them to carry a huge load. Not only are they dealing with their own inadequacies and insecurities while figuring out who they are, they are facing a social pressure that triggers how we handle our pain. We must learn how to cope with it. Some people keep it all inside and don’t talk about their pain, while other people cry and are very expressive with their emotions. Then you have the people who project their pain. These are the abusers of the world—the criminals, wife-beaters, husband-beaters, politicians, priests, [etc]. When you are a young person in those developmental years, your brain is still forming along with your hormones, and it’s overwhelming.
The film’s story is an unpopular one because it asks people to have compassion for an abuser. It’s one of the hardest things that we ask our society to accept—that this behavior is the result of pain. There have been many amazing minds, such as clinical psychologists and doctors, who have come forward and discussed this theory. We must get to the source of the problem, which is not the victim. The victim needs our help and healing as does the bully. We always want to run to the victim, which is a very natural reaction, since we want to protect the innocent. Yet the “eye for an eye” mentality makes us want the bully to get a taste of their own medicine. We have perpetuated this problem for decades because we have never gotten to the source of the issue, which is the pain that causes this behavior. We have a mantra that we live by: the only way to save a victim is to heal a bully.
The project actually started off as a documentary series where young people would be armed with hidden cameras to document what’s going on at their school. Obviously, it was very risky, since we were dealing with minors, so the legalities of a show like that made it seem almost impossible. We pitched it to A&E and they loved it, but they didn’t move forward with it, so I started investigating how to make it a documentary feature. It was several years until the idea came to me while working out one day. I suddenly realized that I had to make it a narrative dramatic feature. I wrote the story in twenty minutes, and it all just poured out of me. I raised almost $40,000 through crowdfunding, and brought in a couple producers who could cast out of LA. That’s how we got Hunter, Lexi and Jimmy. Now we’re in discussions about a spin-off series and it looks like it is going to come to life. Each episode will be based on true stories, but because we don’t want to exploit the real-life subjects, we are going to change their names and locations, much like on “Law & Order.”
How do you approach directing young people like Hunter and Lexi?
I knew that when I wrote the screenplay, I could not write any of the dialogue. Although I know young people very well, I knew that this film had to be improvised. I worked with the actors on each individual scene, and the screenplay described what their goals would be, how their characters related to one another, and some of the language that I wanted to use. I worked with Hunter quite a bit for several days before we actually began filming. Hunter doesn’t have a mean bone in her body. She is one of the kindest people I have ever known, and so to bring out that evil in her, we had to pull from some of the things that people have said to her. She and her sister were both bullied at their school in California, and they eventually had to leave that school. A lot of times during production, Hunter and I would be alone in a room, especially in the scenes where she’s working the camera. We talked about who Avery was, and we dug deep into her pain. When she met Christy Engle, who played Avery’s mom, Hunter started to feel the toxicity of their relationship.
Lexi had to really dive in. After a big emotional scene, Hunter could immediately let go of it, but Lexi could not. She is very sensitive, and we wanted to find a true story that she could bring into her heart. We settled on the story of Phoebe Prince, the Irish tenth-grader who lived in Massachusetts with her mom. For over four months, Phoebe was relentlessly bullied by six of her classmates who were later prosecuted. Phoebe ended up taking her own life, and her story served as a huge inspiration for the character of Jessica. Lexi and I would sit together and watch news stories about Phoebe, and interviews with her dad, Jeremy Prince, who said, “The word ‘bullying’ doesn’t even come close to what happened to my daughter. It was the persecution of the human spirit.” We would watch that footage, Lexi would get into her space, and then we would shoot some of the film’s toughest scenes. That personal, one-on-one approach is how I work with all my actors. In the case of Hunter and Lexi, we still are extremely close and feel that we were brought together for a purpose. We want to begin a new dialogue on this epidemic and hopefully help bring it to an end one day.
What has the experience been like of bringing the film to schools and sharing it with youth?
It’s been overwhelming. So far, over fifty schools nationwide have brought in the film, and that number may have doubled by now. Anna Paquin has reached out and we’ve formed a bond over this movie. I didn’t know her prior to this, and she is determined to lead a crusade to get the film into every middle school and high school in the country. Bringing in a celebrity such as herself who has come on voluntarily to say, “This movie has to be seen by everybody,” has been a huge positive. We have a toolkit called the Peacekeeper Movement, which is a seven-step process on our site. It’s a student-led social change movement that is free to schools and to students. It can be done at any school and I know that it has been downloaded and integrated into schools across the country and all over the world. We know that schools in the U.K., Australia and Guatemala have integrated the principles of the Peacekeeper Movement, and in order for there to be real change, schools have to start living these principles. We can’t just have the administrators and teachers preaching them, because they are going to fall on deaf ears.
This movement has to be led by students who want to live by a code. They are stuck in this institution five days a week, eight hours a day and they have never been taught to live by a code. All they are doing is mirroring back to society what we are doing to each other. Our country is so divided right now. We don’t embrace each other, we are afraid of each other, we put each other down, we make people feel small who are different from us, and we expect our children to rise above us and treat their peers nicely. These kids are stuck in a toxic environment run by adults who aren’t asking them for their ideas of how to go about solving this problem. We are going to be asking our political leaders in every township, city, county and state in this country to open up all school boards, city councils and town councils to include two seats for kids under the age of 18. These kids will run for and represent the youth of those towns and those schools, so they have just as much power as the adults as far as passing laws and ordinances. How on earth do we expect change to happen without bringing their voice to the table?
The film was designed to let a light bulb go off in the minds of people who had never considered that bullies are in pain. We first have to stop that way of thinking and realize these are children. We have to examine what is going on in their lives. They were not born this way. The mental health of that individual has to be examined—the mental health of their home and of their genetics. I’m not talking about a slap on the wrist and a warning of, “Don’t do that, that hurts people.” I’m talking about a complete dissection of their life. Unless we do that, the bully will become the victim of a witch hunt. We send our kids to school not only to get an education, but to be in a safe space where they can feel free to learn, to socialize and to be part of a community. But in reality, we are sending them into war zones where they have to change who they are. There’s this mask that they must put on in order to not be persecuted and become a target. How sad is that?
The reception to “A Girl Like Her” on Netflix showed us that when the film is available and people know about it, they will gravitate to it, share it and talk about it. For over a month, the film was one of Netflix’s top viewed programs, and we feel like the movement has just begun. When the school year starts again, the film could have a whole new life come September. Now that the worldwide rights have been negotiated, the film will be on Netflix all over the world starting September 1st.