Film Reviews
Film Reviews

The Real Villain in "The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez" Is Complacency

On a wider scale, the docuseries is an exploration of the complex layers of child abuse and its aftermath.

"Horrendous, inhumane and nothing short of evil," Judge George Lomeli described the crimes of Pearl Fernandez and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre.

In 2018, the couple was found guilty of first-degree murder in the 2013 death of Fernandez's 8-year-old son, Gabriel. What was uncovered in the five years leading up to the trial revealed the worst case of neglect and child abuse that many officials had ever seen.

In Netflix's latest devastating docuseries, The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez, award-winning documentarian Brian Knappenberger traces the institutional failures and inhumane child abuse that caused the death of Gabriel Fernandez. Rated M for graphic descriptions of violence against a child, the six-part series follows lead prosecutor Jon Hatami as he asks for the death penalty against Fernandez and Aguirre. Knappenberger allows the docuseries to be a difficult viewing experience, recreating the brutal existence of Gabriel with brief dramatic reenactments, crime scene photos, and quick cuts to the autopsy photos, which revealed the extent of the abuse.

"The documentary is a really difficult watch but it's an important one," Knappenberger told EW. "We made the decision that Gabriel's voice needed to be heard, and in order to tell that story we had to be as honest and as straightforward as we possibly could. I think that in the end, this is a story of a kind of redemption, or a questioning of how things can be better in this system and that has motivated us to tell the story." Prior to his death, Gabriel was forced to sleep in a cupboard at the end of his mother's and Aguirre's bed, often bound and gagged; he was severely beaten by Aguirre, who believed the 8-year-old was gay and only gave the boy two dresses to wear; investigators found that the boy was forced to eat cat litter more than once.

The scope of the trial also involved the criminal negligence of four social workers who failed to remove Gabriel from his mother's custody despite at least 13 reports of suspected child abuse being filed with family services. "Nobody listened to Gabriel when he was alive," Knappenberger told TIME. "A lot of people failed him, and there's a lot of reasons that this happened. But when you get to the end, it's about: how do you want to treat kids?"

On a wider scale, the docuseries is an exploration of the complex layers of child abuse and its aftermath. As the episodes trace the development of the trial, Knappenberger also turns our attention to the far-reaching effects of child abuse, from Gabriel's siblings who witnessed the abuse to the security guard who tried to get local authorities to intervene to his teacher, whom Gabriel confided in about the abuse. In a revealing interview, the lead prosecutor even reflects on his own experience with child abuse. While Hatami says he would never compare his experiences to those of his clients, it does inform his goals in court: "That's the real thing people need to understand: the stress of being beaten everyday, the stress of not having any toys, the stress of being ashamed of who you are, the stress of feeling that it's your fault; being scared every day."

In a sense, this humanizing lens doesn't completely forsake Pearl Fernandez, either. "The answers aren't as easy as you think they are in the beginning," Knappenberger noted, "It's easy to demonize both of them, and they deserve it. There are plenty of people who have been abused that didn't turn out this way. I think the more you learn about Pearl and Isauro, you'll understand where they came from—particularly Pearl." During her trial, she was evaluated by clinical psychologist Deborah S. Miora and found to have a severely limited intellectual capacity that rendered her "virtually unable to use thought to guide her behavior and moderate her emotional reactions." She was further diagnosed with a depressive disorder, developmental disability, a possible overall personality disorder, and PTSD from her own childhood with an abusive mother. "Like her son, she probably had no one to turn to," says Wendy Smith, a Distinguished Scholar at USC's School of Social Work.

While trauma survivors like Jon Hatami drew from their experiences to protect others, Pearl became the embodiment of a broken system. Absence of care and oversight became repeated patterns of abuse and dehumanization, resulting in the death of a child. Knappenbrerger said, "The word evil was thrown around the courtroom a lot, which surprised me a little bit. There's no question that these acts were evil but there's also a broken system that allows this to happen. Which is more evil? Which causes more pain? There's no excuse for Pearl or Isauro and I want that to be clear. But they are humans who were a product of their own upbringing, and that's a big part of the story, too."

During Pearl Fernandez's and Isauro Aguirre's sentencing, Judge George Lomeli said, "I hope you think about the pain you caused this child and that it tortures you. I rarely say that." In The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez, Knappenberger doesn't just examine the fatal abuse that Gabriel experienced but rather the long-term effects that abuse has on society, from immediate family members to teachers, social workers, and first responders who live with regret and confusion. Viewers begin to feel that same sense of regret over how easily systems become broken and how broken systems destroy lives.

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Film Reviews

Yes, Pete Davidson Talks About Ariana Grande in His New Netflix Special

In Pete Davidson: Alive From New York, the SNL cast member handles controversial topics well...for the most part.

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Since diving into the world of stand-up as a teenager, Pete Davidson's comedy has often hinged on touchy subject matter.

The Saturday Night Live cast member's debut Netflix special, Pete Davidson: Alive From New York, dropped this week, and there's no shortage of potentially controversial topics: fellow comedian Louis C.K., his hyper-public breakup with Ariana Grande, and divisive politician/veteran Dan Crenshaw being among them. "All right, we'll do some 9/11 jokes, and then we'll get the f--k out of here," Davidson shrugs near the set's end, as casually as if he were taking a sip of water.

Callousness might be Davidson's bread and butter, but in Alive From New York, he handles these polarizing issues with a surprising level of grace. The special opens with a particularly eyebrow-raising anecdote: "So Louis C.K. tried to get me fired from 'SNL' my first year, and this is that story," he explains. By the punchline—and not without a healthy dose of self-deprecation—Davidson paints the disgraced C.K. as, somehow, even more unlikeable.

Davidson hits his stride when he's able to justify those points of contention; his 9/11 jokes land because he frames them within the context of having lost his father in the attacks. His picking on Grande is among the special's highlights, because he knows he's punching up: "She won Billboard's Woman of the Year, and I got called 'butthole eyes' by barstoolsports.com." Naturally, Davidson also doesn't shy away from poking fun at himself, dismissing the rumors that circulated after Grande implied he was—ahem—well-endowed. "She's a very smart person, OK?" he says. "She did that so that every girl that sees my dick for the rest of my life is disappointed."

But Alive From New York's low point came when Davidson made a joke about doubting if certain gay men were actually gay. In the bit, which got flack after being featured in the special's official trailer, Davidson opens by assuring viewers that he has a lot of gay friends, which off the bat feels slightly too similar to the classic "I can't be racist because I have black friends" defense. "It's that gay dude that'll run up on your girlfriend and squeeze her boobs and grab her ass and be like, 'Damn, girl, you look great!'" Davidson says. "I don't find that f--king funny."

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Writer Jill Gutowitz condemned this joke in a viral Twitter thread, emphasizing that, as a woman, she'd never been groped by a gay man: "Did straight men literally invent this stereotype of gay men with grab hands?" she asked, adding that depicting gay men in that light was "extremely dangerous." Gutowitz's tweets were met with mixed responses. Some women shared the same sentiments, although the majority pointed out numerous times in which gay men had groped them without their consent. "Don't dismiss that cis gay men are still men conditioned to see us as objects," one user argued.

Davidson's joke concurred that gay men shouldn't be able to freely grope women, although it was veiled with a "...because she's my girlfriend" qualifier. Nonetheless, it's generally in poor taste for masculine, straight men like Davidson to joke about gay men in a negative light. He surely meant no harm in the joke, but if he does in fact have a lot of gay friends, then he probably should've been advised to avoid such a joke altogether.

Davidson knows his comedy isn't for everyone—"I know that joke splits the room," he clarifies after a provocative punchline—but overall, Alive From New York evidences his growth as a comedian. Where other comedians show a lack of distinction between vulgarity and full-on offensiveness, Davidson proves he's pretty good at walking the thin line between the two—butthole eyes and all.

This article contains spoilers.

Last week, Netflix celebrated Valentine's Day by premiering To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You.

A film adaptation of Jenny Han's novel of the same name—and the sequel to 2018's hit To All the Boys I've Loved Before—P.S. I Still Love You begins with Lara Jean Covey and Peter Kavinsky's first date as a real couple. After feigning their romance in order to spark jealousy in a mutual enemy, the unlikely couple are in it for real this time; that is, until Lara Jean receives a response to the last of her numerous love letters that her sister sent out behind her back in the first movie.

The subject in question is John Ambrose McClaren, who reveals that the feelings Lara Jean had for him when they were younger were mutual. Serendipitously, the two end up volunteering together at Belleview Retirement Villa, commencing Twilight levels of love-triangle drama (OK, not quite—although "Team Peter" and "Team John" hashtags were floating around social media).

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To All the Boys I've Loved Before was enjoyable for quite a few reasons, including well-done Asian-American representation within the film's central family, but also because Lara Jean is an incredibly relatable and surprisingly underrepresented type of protagonist. Although she's never been in a relationship, she's self-assured and not socially awkward, opposing the persona that many post-Never Been Kissed rom coms tend to assign their female leads. As Lara Jean begins navigating a true relationship for the first time in P.S. I Still Love You with a seasoned dater like Peter, she brings up valid concerns: What are the right and wrong ways to be a girlfriend? How do you reckon with experiencing each of your "firsts" alongside someone whose "firsts" are things of the past?

But the depth of P.S. I Still Love You pretty much ends there. Although Peter is no novice to boyfriendhood, he still stumbles his way through pursuing Lara Jean; he shows up hours late to their coffee date and leaves much to be desired on their first Valentine's Day together. Gen, Peter's ever-threatening ex-girlfriend, warns Lara Jean that the dates he plans might not be so thoughtful after all. The red flags are endless, but Lara Jean finally decides it's over when she sees a compromising photo of Peter and Gen looking a little too comfortable together, opening the door for her to explore her interest in John Ambrose. Meanwhile, although the viewer never gets quite as full a scope of him, John Ambrose seems much more well-intentioned and level-headed throughout the film. But when the two finally kiss, Lara Jean makes the rather disappointing decision that she still wants to be with Peter, with whom she reconciles.

The overarching message of P.S. I Still Love You, if there even is one, seems to urge us to ignore warning signs and get back together with our negligent ex-partners. The film is entertaining, but it strips Lana Condor's excellent lead performance into just another rehashing of an exhausted trope. It would've been refreshing to see Lara Jean deepen her relationships with the other female characters. Her screentime with her best friend, Chris, is minimal. Lara Jean does confide in Stormy, a feisty resident of Belleview, but the elder's advice hardly dips below "follow your gut." In a pretty surprising twist, Lara Jean attempts to rectify her former friendship with Gen. But the spiel Lara Jean gives her is self-pitying and, honestly, uncomfortable: "Part of the reason [I broke up with Peter] was because when he was with me, I always thought he was thinking about you," Lara Jean explains. "I was convinced that he was never really gonna get over you. And then I realized that the person who couldn't get over you was me." This speech, although framed as a climactic revelation, completely negates Peter's faults and Gen's meddling habit. Lest we forget Peter slept in Gen's room the same night he kissed Lara Jean on their school's ski trip, and does Gen really have nobody else besides Peter to comfort her during her parents' divorce? Although it's implied that Gen and Lara Jean are beginning to make amends, we never see Gen explicitly apologize for attempting to sabotage Peter and Lara Jean's relationship. As a result, Gen's redemption arc is minimized, and her entire exchange with Lara Jean feels stagnant.

It's upsetting to see Lara Jean blame the load of Peter and Gen's collective actions on herself. She deserves better than both of them, and To All the Boys I've Loved Before deserved a better sequel. P.S. I Still Love You is a fine way to kill 90 minutes, but there's nothing profound or thought-provoking about it.

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