Review: ‘Lizzie Velasquez’ documentary tells a true story of bold heroism

09.24.15 2 years ago


One of the things I am keenly aware of as I share movies and other media with my sons is that they take the things we watch together very seriously, and in many cases, they are piecing together their knowledge of the world and the way it works from not only the films and the media, but from my reaction to them as well.

WIth that in mind, one of the words I want to be careful with is “hero,” because I do think there's a tendency with media to program our perception of heroism as being defined by action and violence. There are two films about heroism this year that take a different approach, both of them important, both of them enormously emotional. “Batkid Begins” is about the heroism of community, of the way people were inspired to these remarkable lengths by something as simple as the illness of a child. It's a film that is dizzying in its optimism, moving because of all the hope and promise that it conveys. The other great film about heroism this year deals with the way someone defines themselves and the very real courage it requires to refuse to be defined by bullying or by societal restrictions, and I'm going to make sure that by the end of this year, my kids know both the name and story of Lizzie Velasquez.

Born with a congenital disease that manifests in a number of ways including an inability to maintain body fat, Velasquez has become a successful motivational speaker, and the strength of character she has, the clarity of purpose and voice that she exhibits, is overwhelming. I can't imagine, and I am willing to admit that I would have buckled under the kind of pressure she faced. I moved several times while I was growing up, which meant starting over at school and having to define myself each time. With the last name “McWeeny,” I walked into every new situation with a chip on my shoulder. I automatically assumed the worst, and to be fair, I was rarely disappointed. It seemed like each new place I moved, I had to have an attitude like I had just been sent to prison. Figure out who was going to come at me the hardest about the last name and then shut them down. When I was younger, I frequently did that with fists thrown. As I got older, I learned to do it with humor and cruelty. I would Don Rickles some poor kid if it meant sparing myself. I could make self-deprecating jokes to defuse my own last name, then roast some other bastard in my place, and while it worked to keep me from having to take too much heat, there's no courage to that approach. It's part of that grand circle of random teenage cruelty, me shuffling it off onto someone else to avoid it, and knowing how hard I worked to avoid simply getting my balls busted about my last name, I have to admit to myself that I could never have withstood the sort of pressures faced by Velasquez.

Born in 1989 in Austin, TX, Velasquez has always had severe health issues. At her absolute heaviest, she was 64 pounds. She has a blind right eye that is clouded over and which has been since she was four years old. Her overall condition is linked to neonatal progeroid syndrome, but her problems are far more severe than most people with the same thing. Photos of her were turned into a YouTube video that named her “the world's ugliest woman,” and millions of views later, Velasquez was not only still standing, but actually seemed to be getting stronger as a result of the new platform she'd been given.

The documentary “A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story” would probably be at least somewhat effective even if all it did was let Lizzie talk directly to the camera, but Sara Hirsh Bordo's film is better than that. She looks at the very real toll that it takes on Velasquez to spend the kind of energy she spends putting out a message designed to empower and elevate young women and marginalized kids. What she has to say is important because of just how articulate and empathic Velasquez is as a speaker. When she opens up, it's hard not to feel what she's feeling. There are certainly plenty of people who have been dealt difficult genetic hands, but what makes Velasquez special is the bafflingly-deep wellspring of strength she has to apply to the challenges she faces.

The film follows her through some milestones as she speaks to various crowds, and while each of the various speaking engagements are important in their own way, to their own audiences, what is important about what we see in this film is that we understand it is not a simple thing. We could not all be this strong. It costs her, and she has already done so much to spread her message that no one would fault her if she did something else or if she cashed in somehow. That's not who she is, though, and it is this deep strength, this sense of humor, this ability to shine as brightly as she does which makes Lizzie Velasquez feel like a real hero.

There are films that work as transformative pieces, where you start the movie looking at something or listening to something or thinking something, and through the sort of close-up exposure that only film can give us, our feelings or perceptions transform for real. By the time we're about 20 minutes into this film, Velasquez no longer looked the same way to me. Her personality, the sort of smart-assed funny girly teenager she is at heart, shone through so clearly that I saw that person when I looked at her. Bordo's film gets in close enough that we see past Lizzie's outside, past her message and her activism, past the YouTube star, and the person she ultimately showcases is someone who has already worked so hard in her life that it is a miracle she has been able to indulge that side of herself. So much of life seems to be designed to beat all of that girlish joy out of Lizzie Velasquez, and she simply refused to allow it.

It's a very direct film, a lovely portrait of family and strength and just how far one voice can carry, especially when amplified in the right ways. “A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story” is available on iTunes and Vimeo On Demand and Google Play and Amazon Instant Video and VUDU and Movies On Demand and you can book screenings with Tugg and you can show it in schools and it absolutely should be shown and shared with young viewers and discussed. They're making it very, very easy, and it's going to be very rewarding.

“A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Store” is available tomorrow, September 25.

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