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HBO’s ‘Valentine Road’ highlights work to be done on tolerance

You might know the news story chronicled in “Valentine Road” (9 tonight, HBO), but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch this documentary. There are still things to learn, things to ponder from this fine piece of work about children and justice and tolerance.

It tells the story of a 2008 shooting in Oxnard, Calif., by Brandon McInerney, 14, of Lawrence King, an eighth grader who was cross-dressing, and as part of a game, embarrassed McInerney by asking him to be his Valentine. Brandon shot Larry in the back of the head in the middle of class. Larry died two days later. The story got national coverage; Ellen DeGeneres gave a heartfelt speech about the killing and about tolerance on her talk show.

In a way, while of course well-intentioned, the documentary -- directed by Marta Cunningham -- reveals the perils of speeches like those given by DeGeneres. The case shows we spend a lot of time speaking the words of tolerance, even mandating them, but not enough time teaching people how to embrace them and thus, really practice true acceptance. Things are more complicated than just noting that bullying is bad.

Just by following the case over its two-year odyssey, Cunningham shows all the threads that spark a lot of questions. Should a 14-year-old be tried as an adult? Does his troubled background matter? Can asserting one’s child’s choice over another be a cause of bullying? Can you expect a teacher to teach something he doesn’t believe in?

What’s particularly noteworthy in “Valentine Road” is how often the adults blow it. And the children, God bless them, know it. For instance, when the school is locked down after the shooting, the teachers occupy the kids in a room by screening “Jaws,” just the kind of comforting film you should show after a classmate is murdered. And later, there’s no counseling provided for the students or teachers. Too often, the wise words spoken and acts of kindness displayed are by the children.

“Valentine Road” shows us that despite the prominence of Ellen DeGeneres, despite the sitcoms with gay dads and despite gay marriage legislation, intolerance around sexual identity -- and by extension, intolerance around any difference -- requires real work, real commitment and our full attention before more lives are lost.