Film Review: A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story

Well-intentioned documentary about a young woman afflicted with a horrifically disfiguring genetic disorder would like to be inspirational but feels exploitative.
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A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story is an exceedingly difficult documentary to review. Velasquez is not a fictional character, but a living human being who has been afflicted with Marfan’s Syndrome, a rare and horrific genetic disorder, which causes kidney, lung and heart disease (that may result in an early death) and is monstrously disfiguring.

Patients diagnosed with this condition may be emaciated (simply unable to gain weight) and unnaturally long-limbed, with oversized heads, skinny faces, beaked noses, bulbous eyes and severely wrinkled skin that would be unusual on an 85-year-old.

It’s not that 26-year-old Lizzie, who weighs 63 pounds, is anything but good-humored and optimistic. She’s also self-assured, articulate, and enjoys being in the public eye. In fact, she’s an anti-bullying lobbyist who has testified before Congress, and she enjoys an international reputation as a motivational speaker with a huge following. She has found a place for herself—after a lifetime of bullying and abuse—and one is pleased for her.

Nonetheless, director Sara Hirsh Bordo, who clearly sees Lizzie as an inspiration, is straddling a thin line. Some viewers may indeed be inspired by Lizzie, but an equal number might find the movie virtually impossible to watch, or worse view the film as an opportunity for a little rubber-necking. Documentaries about the genetically damaged still feel like exploitation, Lizzie’s happy participation notwithstanding.

The movie is further hindered by its ambition, which is fuzzy at best. On the one hand, it’s a character study, a journey of victimization to triumph. Born prematurely, the Texas-based Lizzie is brutalized early on in life when an online bully dubs her the ugliest woman in the world and others get on board suggesting she kill herself.  

Initially Lizzie is crushed, but then she decides to fight. With her adoring family at her side, she creates a forgiving video—pointing out that bullies are victims too—and launches herself into a national arena, addressing audiences that top 10,000 in attendance. She is also well-versed in the use of social media.

Bordo, who is making her directorial debut with this film, met Lizzie when she produced the first TEDx Talk Austin Women’s Event in 2013 and asked Lizzie to participate. It was the most viewed TEDx Talk event that year, garnering an audience of 10 million. Lizzie went on to appear on and host network shows and Bordo felt there was a huge market for Lizzie’s story.

Bordo also saw Lizzie’s story as a springboard for political action, hoping to galvanize the audience on behalf of anti-bullying legislation. At one point, Lizzie is speaking to Hillary Clinton (an oddly intrusive snippet), and at another she has joined forces with Tina Meier, the mother of a cyber-bullying victim who killed herself. Whether anti-bullying legislation could be passed—or what it would entail or how it would be enforced—is debatable. But either way, this aspect of the film is the weak sister and the attempted interweaving of the film’s two strands is klutzy.

Equally problematic is the unendurable pabulum spewed forth by motivational speakers including Lizzie. “Don’t listen to what they say. You’re special.” “You’re here for a purpose.” “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

The larger issue here is how a film like this should be tackled, and perhaps the harsh answer is it shouldn’t.

Click here for cast and crew information.