Daisy Coleman was 14 in Maryville, Mo., when she was not only sexually assaulted by classmates but publicly cyber-shamed. Audrie Pott was 15 in Saratoga, Calif., when the same thing happened to her that same year, 2012.
Now their stories are forever linked by a harrowing new documentary, debuting Friday on Netflix.
“Audrie & Daisy” takes an unflinching approach to this alarming material, which hits close to home both emotionally and geographically. The documentary scrutinizes the “blame the victim” mentality that has seemingly gotten worse in the internet era. But the film also offers a redemptive message of compassion via a network of survivors.
Four years ago, Daisy and a younger friend had too many drinks at an older high school student’s house. While a football player had sex with the incoherent 14-year-old, a classmate did the same to her 13-year-old friend. A third buddy took videos of the deeds.
As The Kansas City Star reported in a story that went viral, even though the investigating Nodaway County Sheriff’s Department extracted (and recorded) confessions of the offense, no charges were pursued. Considering the main perpetrator has a hereditary connection to a well-known congressman, many in the film wonder if the decision is political.
As one of the victims’ mother says, “It became more important to shield the boys than show justice for the girls.”
Yet the crime becomes extra maddening because of the callous response of her peers, who label her a crybaby, slut and worse. A relentless online bullying campaign drives Daisy and her family packing … and her toward attempted suicide.
Her experience is contrasted with that of Audrie, an outgoing but self-conscious teen who “loved practical jokes.”
Once again, the pervasiveness of alcohol and cellphones led to a passed-out encounter with classmates, who first used Sharpies to doodle obscenities over her stripped body. This footage — capped by uninvited penetration — circulated among her peers. What started as a cruel practical joke ended 10 days later with Audrie hanging herself in disgrace.
Originally debuting at Sundance, “Audrie & Daisy” juggles difficult subject matter — made all the more dicey by the age of the victims and fuzzy states-of-mind of those involved — to create a cohesive denunciation against shame. Wife and husband filmmakers Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk find fresh ways to present such inflammatory evidence.
Instead of blurring out faces of the accused, they animate them. (Picture shooting a deposition in the style of Richard Linklater’s “A Scanner Darkly.”) Instead of harassing texts and tweets emanating from a phone screen, they float the words into aerial shots taken of Daisy’s neighborhood. It’s a clever way to elevate the typical “Dateline NBC” methodology.
The film starts to meander as the weight of Daisy’s situation is echoed repeatedly by multiple family members. (Her loyal older brother, a fellow jock and former friend of the culprits, earns the most effective screen time.) The wispy blond girl undergoes a slow physical transformation that mirrors her decaying emotional mindset. By the time she hits 18, she’s all but unrecognizable: gothy black hair, a partially shaved head and tattoos.
Then Delaney Henderson enters the picture. The young California rape survivor seeks out Daisy to share her own tale. To commiserate. And, more importantly, to invite her to a support group populated by teens with shockingly similar experiences.
Why did Daisy’s schoolmates, law enforcement and elected officials fail to arrive at seemingly easy conclusions about justice? Why did the community turn against her? The movie doesn’t answer these questions. But it at least shines some light on them.
At one point the camera lingers on a phrase posted on a basement wall that Daisy’s brother uses to motivate himself while weightlifting: “Monsters are made not born.”
“Audrie & Daisy” argues that same sentiment. And it also suggests that even when monsters are vanquished, they never truly go away.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
‘Audrie & Daisy’
Not rated. Time: 1:35.
Debuts Friday on Netflix.