For her new movie about school bullying, Birmingham filmmaker Amy S. Weber found inspiration in her childhood experiences not only as a bullying victim, but as a bully herself.
"I was protecting myself from ever getting hurt again," Weber says of her middle-school days as a bully. "And that was a hard road for me to overcome and change my ways. ... Even as a 46-year-old woman, I can say that I'm a constant work in progress."
Weber is the writer and director of "A Girl Like Her," which opens today in theaters nationwide. The drama follows the people in a bullied girl's life — her parents, her schoolmates and, most importantly, the girl who bullied her — while she's in critical condition after a suicide attempt. The fictional film, shot at Birmingham locations including Seaholm High School, is presented as the work of a documentary crew making a movie about the main characters' school. The film incorporates "found footage" that appears to be shot by the bullied character, her best friend and her tormentor.
"The intention was not to try and fool anyone," Weber says. "The intention was to try and tell the most raw and relevant film through the perspective of all parties involved in this one particular story that as a society we find takes place in every single one of these stories that go on in our schools."
In keeping with the faux-documentary approach, Weber sought naturalistic performances from her cast. All dialogue in the film was improvised from Weber's minimalist script, which described only the action in each scene. Rather than having her actors rehearse lines, Weber assigned each to write a "mini-journal" about their character, considering every detail "down to the shoes that they wear and the color of shoelaces."
Weber says the realistic approach was inspired by her work producing short documentaries on social issues affecting teens for the Channel One news program broadcast in schools nationwide.
"This was second nature to me," she says. "Because the issue is so emotional and so relatable to so many people, it was not difficult for the actors to put themselves in the shoes of their characters."
Weber has launched a program called the PEACEKeeper Movement, described as a "youth revolution" celebrating "individuality, love and respect for all people." A PEACEKeeper Kit available on the website for "A Girl Like Her" lays out steps for students, families and school staff to promote respect.
Weber says that while the pain of bullying hasn't changed, the number of technological tools available to bullies has. And she says school bullying problems hold up a mirror to larger issues such as the way adults treat each other.
"I think a social shift needs to happen, and a cultural shift," she says. "But that is a huge order, and we can't begin with such a big picture. We have to begin with one community, one family, one school at a time. It begins in our own family."
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.