Audrie & Daisy (★★★½) may be the title of Bonni Cohen’s and Jon Shenk’s new documentary, but the film might better be described as Daisy & a little bit of Audrie. Although it begins with the story and subsequent suicide of Audrie Pott, the film soon transitions to the rape of Daisy Coleman, and that story will be the focus for most of its run time. Besides their parallel sexual assaults, the stories of Audrie and Daisy are connected only by a brief interview of another sexual assault survivor, Delaney Henderson; she regrets Audrie’s suicide and later befriends Daisy.
I’m sure part of the reason Audrie Pott’s and Daisy Coleman’ stories are paired together is simple financial necessity. Audrie & Daisy, which sold to Netflix at Sundance in January, needed enough narrative meat to make it past 90 minutes. And that’s okay. Audrie & Daisy may not be breaking new ground, but it is a well-produced and timely documentary. It succeeds by prioritizing the personal over the activism and expert interviews we have come to see from documentaries like The Hunting Ground.
Not that there is anything wrong with taking The Hunting Ground‘s approach to documenting sexual assault. Just as the image-conscious colleges covered up assaults, the institutional villains of Audrie & Daisy are plenty infuriating. The sheriff of Maryville, Missouri, where 14-year old Daisy was raped by a 17-year old, blames the crime on the victim and tells us “girls have as much culpability as boys.” The mayor of Maryville seems more concerned with protecting the town’s resort image than he is with assuring justice for one of his citizens. The three teenage boys responsible for Audrie’s assault were given just a slap on the wrist; two received 30-day sentences, another received 45-days in jail. If you are somehow unaware of how the criminal justice and political system treats victims of sexual violence, Audrie & Daisy will give you a rude awakening.
But the true strength of this documentary is in the compelling tale of Daisy Coleman. One night, she and her friend, Paige, were invited over to the house of her brother’s friend. Already intoxicated, the two girls were separated, drank some more, and were raped. Barely conscious, Daisy and Paige were dumped on the Daisy’s front lawn, discovered in the morning by the Coleman family. Besides some unnecessary drawings, the story is told subtly and undramatically. The filmmakers pulled off a coup by getting the clips of the accused rapists being deposed by the police. We experience the boys’ evasions and doubt and regret. Unlike in The Hunting Ground, where the accused are a distant presence, here the rapists, and not just their actions, are under scrutiny. How were these monsters created? Audrie and Daisy doesn’t tell us, but it leaves us with a suspicion that these boys are closer to home (and a greater part of our communities) than we might assume.
The buried gold in Audrie & Daisy is actually the story Daisy’s older brother, Charlie Coleman. A star baseball player who we see lifting weights in his spare time, Charlie is a sensitive, empathetic presence for Daisy. Not only were his friends involved in the rape of his sister, but they refused to talk or explain what happened to her. At school, he (along with Daisy) were ostracized by peers who thought Daisy made it all up. What Charlie’s story shows is that sexual assault isn’t just a crime; it’s also a betrayal. A betrayal of the values of community and friendship and love. In one great scene at the end, Cohen and Shenk show that Charlie is now volunteering as a Little League coach. After his players say something disparaging about a girl, Charlie recounts that he taught them a lesson about respect. It’s a small, almost insignificant moment of change, but a reason to hope for the next generation.
Documentaries often struggle to produce visuals that are as interesting as their stories. Audrie & Daisy is well-edited and mostly devoid of the shaky-cam footage that makes many documentaries difficult to sit through. Difficult graphics, including on-screen Facebook chat boxes, are presented in refreshing ways. One scene uses footage of the peaceful town of Maryville as background for vicious tweets targeting Daisy. It makes you think twice about the community’s loyalties.
Additionally, the film has some stunning aerial and establishing shots of Audrie’s hometown, Saratoga, California, and Daisy’s as well. After naked photos were taken and distributed of her, Audrie committed suicide just days later in September 2012. The filmmakers thankfully don’t reenact the suicide, but instead show her empty bedroom, pool, school’s football stadium, and neighborhood. Along with a clear-eyed interviews with her parents and closest friend, we get the visual message. To see the world without the child you love is cruel punishment. The damage of sexual violence (and suicide) nevers stops with one person.
Indeed, the film ends with Daisy going to Washington D.C. and speaking out in an effort to raise awareness for survivors of sexual assault. Having suffered her own bouts of depression and cutting, Daisy found help through her tattoos and time in therapy. She graduated high school with an athletic scholarship. She now speaks of healing and forgiveness. Throughout the film and as part of the ending, Cohen and Shenk through in montages of Instagram and Facebook photos of Audrie and Daisy. Yes, it is a commentary on the social media (and threats) the two girls experienced. But all the images, of them in bikinis, with different hair styles, cats and silly faces, carry a different meaning. They say: You are not your assault. As a tribute to two girls and not the crimes committed against them, Audrie & Daisy should leave a lasting impact on audiences.