Vicious online personal attacks. Gang assaults by classmates. Taunted kids turning to suicide. The onslaught of tragic news about bullying among teens struck Kim Rocco Shields.
“Why does this keep happening?” she asked herself—and what could she do to respond?
A filmmaker, Shields decided to flip convention, imagining a world where straight people are the outsiders in a predominantly gay culture. Raising about $10,000 with an online campaign, she set out to make a short film that would make people rethink the stereotypes that stoke harassment for all kinds of kids.
The result, Love Is All You Need?, was shot in a matter of days. It shows a landscape where homosexuality is wholesome, hetero couples don’t get invited to dinner parties and the star football quarterback is a girl. When a girl is harassed for liking boys, her teacher advises her it’s “just a phase,” adding, “Maybe if you got yourself a girlfriend, all of this teasing would stop.”
'Love is All You Need?' Short Film 'Love is All You Need?' Short Film
Released on YouTube in 2012, the short languished with a relatively small amount of views. Then the website Upworthy posted a story with the headline “Girl Bullied for Being Straight,” using a picture of star Lexi DiBenedetto with the word “Hetero” written on her forehead. Today the video, posted to multiple channels on YouTube, has gotten more than 20 million views
Shields, who is gay, understands what it’s like to be bullied. She saw how it affects marginalized students while growing up in Los Angeles. As a script supervisor in Hollywood, she saw crew and cast members who were afraid to come out of the closet or confront the status quo.
Having spent much of her teenage years filming short movies, she knew she wanted to make ones that impacted viewers’ opinions. At the University of California she studied how movies influence culture and the psychology of what makes an audience laugh or cry.
“Putting people into a dark room and telling them your story is a very powerful experience,” Shields says.
Though the story in Love is fictional, it’s assembled from real events. In 2008, when Shields got the idea for the film, a series of tragic stories brought the bullying issue to the fore. In Florida, eight classmates ganged up and gave a high school cheerleader a concussion and two black eyes. A California court convicted a Missouri woman of fraud for creating a fake, taunting MySpace profile that contributed to the suicide of a 13-year-old girl.
In recent years, states including California, Illinois, Kansas and Kentucky have enacted legislation aimed at curbing bullying.
Despite those new policies and a wave of praise for Shields’ film, some of the reaction shows just how entrenched some of the beliefs that lead to bullying can be.
In 2014, a teacher at Polatka High School in northern Florida showed the film to a student group. At a subsequent school board meeting, parents and clergy condemned teacher Jeremy Rhoden for attempting to “indoctrinate” children. The teacher was later reinstated, but his contract wasn’t renewed at the end of the school year. When the Polatka High School principal, Mary Beth Hedstrom, allowed Shields to later interview students with parental approval about their reaction to the film, she was later temporarily suspended from her job.
In Conway Springs, Kansas, teacher Thomas Leahy was put on administrative leave for 10 days last year after showing the short to his 8th-grade class as part of a lesson on tolerance. Asked to resign, Leahy refused, and was later reinstated after much pressure, including a petition with 3,000 signatures. The resulting official statement explained that Leahy would be “allowed back in the classroom with some safeguards in place to make sure the students in the classroom are okay.”
Even Hollywood had its biases. Though there was interest in turning the short into a feature film, the whole idea of gays defining the mainstream world didn’t sit particularly well with many producers. One suggested skies filled with rainbows and characters acting stereotypically swishy to emphasize exactly how gay the world of Love Is All You Need? is. Another wanted to turn the movie into sci-fi.
“Hollywood wanted to turn it into something they knew already,” says Shields. “Our society portrays minority culture in a way it’s comfortable with.”
After several waves of meetings in Hollywood, the filmmaker eventually raised funds outside of the traditional system. However, having a bigger budget didn’t mean the production went smoothly.
Big-name actors and actresses were interested, but also uneasy with some of topics and references. The final cast includes a mix of well-established character actors and impressive newcomers, including Jeremy Sisto and Elisabeth Röhm. Kyla Kennedy, who had a recurring role on The Walking Dead, stars as the main character, a girl bullied for her interest in boys.
Shields’s distribution plan is still in the works for a film with the potential to induce uncomfortable squirming and awkward giggles. She wants every screening to be given the right context, which is a tall order for the standard film distribution process.
“Creating a project that’s supposed to enlighten can be tough,” she says. “You would think a distribution company would understand the audience for the piece.” Many distributors are hesitant to sign agreements requiring them to exhibit the work outside of the indie film circuit.
After screening “Love Is All You Need?” at the Amsterdam and Newport Beach film Festivals, she has received distribution offers but is hesitant to send the movie out into theaters without context. If possible, the filmmaker would like to see the film shown at non-traditional locations and include panel discussions for context. At a recent screening in North Carolina, the evening also featured a Q&A with lesbian YouTube stars Bria & Chrissy.
Near the end of a path that started eight years ago, Shields has learned to be much more self-reliant and inventive to get her work accomplished and seen.
“Me as the force that’s going to drive to release this film the correct way is exciting,” she says. “I’m excited to do this with my life.”