A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story: Keep Shining On, by David Bax
Sara Hirsh Bordo’s A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story is proof that when a documentary has a compelling enough central subject, little other adornment is necessary. Despite the film being largely pedestrian in assemblage and presentation, Lizzie herself is such an overwhelming and remarkable force that it would be difficult not to be moved.
Lizzie Velasquez was born with a superlatively rare condition that leaves her unable to gain weight. The protruding teeth, eyeballs and forehead and overall emaciated appearance that resulted from this made her an easy target for exclusion, mockery and bullying in early grade school. As years went by, though, she found some normalcy. Many of her classmates became friends, which it would be hard not to do. For all she’s been through, Lizzie’s glowing and exuberant personality persists and astounds. Then, when she was seventeen, she found a clip of herself on YouTube titled “The World’s Ugliest Woman.” Even worse, it was accompanied by hundreds and hundreds of comments suggesting she be killed or, at the very least, hidden away from the world. Her devastation at this is more than understandable but it was her uncommon strength that prevailed. Lizzie is now a leading anti-bullying activist. Bordo’s film, after establishing the backstory, follows her on her travels as she gives speeches in Mexico City, meets with lawmakers in Washington, D.C. and just generally is a badass.
Lizzie’s first step in fighting back was to start her own YouTube channel, which became wildly popular. It’s easy to see why. Beyond having the hook of a woman mocked by the internet speaking up, Lizzie has a natural and comfortable presence in front of the camera, not to mention a great sense of personal style. These things translate well, not just to the documentary, but to the Ted Talk that elevated her and her cause to national fame. It’s so easy to watch and listen to Lizzie that it’s only a moment before you stop seeing her syndrome and just see the person. In essence, this is her whole argument. Kids who are ridiculed and hurt are usually targeted for something they can’t help (being overweight, being poor, etc.) that has nothing to do with their true selves. Each victim is as much a person as her or his bully is.
One of Bordo’s strengths as a documentarian is to allow elements around the subject to fill in a larger picture. We are able to understand how Lizzie’s compassion came from her father, Guadalupe, a Christian man whose early advice in regards to the YouTube poster and commenters was to forgive them. And in one big moment, when Lizzie is about to give a speech to her largest audience ever (somewhere in the range of 10,000 attendees), Bordo moves her camera away from Lizzie and onto Rita, her mother. It’s a powerful moment, suggesting that Lizzie’s bravery is something like the sun, too huge and bright to be directly comprehended. Instead, we have to look at its reflection in others in order to understand.
Bordo is less successful in sections devoted directly to the anti-bullying matters, which tend to devolve into bland PR when Lizzie is not on the screen. Truthfully, those bits don’t even need to be included. Lizzie embodies her cause on her own and this movie will draw people to it on her strength. The word “inspirational” has been overused and watered down but there’s nothing else that can describe the moment when Lizzie, doing her hair before a speech, glances at her phone to see a tweet urging her to kill herself and reacts with smiling sympathy before striding onto a stage to talk to 10,000 people. What an inspiring woman. What a beautiful woman.