There’s a lot that’s alarming and unsettling about the documentary Audrie & Daisy, but nothing chills the spine quite like the interviews with two of the high-school kids convicted of sexually assaulting their classmate Audrie Pott. Pretty and popular, Pott had been an object of attention for a clique of football players almost from puberty. As the boys explain in their interviews, they had a private online account for sharing nude photos of their female peers, many of whom posed for them willingly. But Pott didn’t want to play along. When she got drunk at a party one night, they stripped her, raped her, drew all over her naked body with markers, and then triumphantly shared the pictures. Years later, talking about the incident on camera, they own up to every bit of this, yet still seem uncertain about exactly what they did wrong.
There are four rapes covered in Audrie & Daisy. In addition to what happened to Pott—who committed suicide not long after she learned that the images of her humiliation were spreading all over her school—the film features a brief interview with Delaney Henderson, who suffered a similar ordeal and regrets that she didn’t reach out and commiserate with Audrie while she could. Then the last two-thirds of the documentary mostly focuses on two small-town Missourians, Daisy Coleman and her best friend, whose case became a source of international controversy after the local authorities chose not to prosecute the teens who assaulted them while they were intoxicated. Henderson was able to get in touch with Coleman—though not until after Daisy had become the target of online death-threats and had attempted suicide multiple times, and after her family’s Maryville home had been burned down.
Directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk (who previously collaborated on the doc The Island President) tell these stories with a combination of new interviews, official police footage, news reports, and animation. The approaches vary in effectiveness. The animation isn’t an expressive aesthetic choice so much as a visually snazzy attempt to disguise the identities of Audrie’s assailants (who were required to speak with Cohen and Shenk as part of their plea agreement). The archival clips, meanwhile, tend to be more frustrating than illuminating, in that they lack the context and follow-up to explain what they’re showing. In the Coleman case especially, the interrogation videos and the scenes of protests in Maryville merely sketch around the larger story of how local law enforcement’s dismissal of Daisy’s claims led to a worldwide call for justice that overwhelmed everyone involved.
But as with the interviews in the Pott case, Cohen and Shenk’s sit-downs with the Maryville authorities are bracing, in ways that help explain how something like Coleman’s situation could happen. The local sheriff—pushed into a defensive posture by all the criticism of his office on social media—makes offhand comments like, “Everyone wants to throw the word ‘rape’ out there,” and, “Don’t underestimate the need for attention, especially among young girls.” His responses, coupled with the clips of the accused receiving what amounts to a stern talking-to at the police station after the incident, speaks volumes about where the priorities seemed to lie for the city fathers in Maryville: to make it so the boys could get on with their lives.
Audrie & Daisy could’ve done more to connect up the way the internet looms over both cases: the former with the way Audrie was cyber-bullied by her classmates after she was assaulted, and the latter with the way both Daisy and Maryville were pilloried online. What the documentary does well, though, is critique a culture that allows young men to disregard other people’s humanity. One of the most fascinating characters in the film is Daisy’s brother Charlie, a star athlete whose whole worldview was shaken after he realized that his in-crowd status and his closeness with the other high-school jocks didn’t prevent anyone in that group from taking advantage of his sister. As for the guys who assaulted Audrie, when asked what they’ve learned from the whole affair, one says that he now understands that girls gossip a lot, and are easily embarrassed. That’s an odd and terrifying lesson for one man to take from a rape victim’s suicide: that something must be fundamentally flawed within women.