Review: ‘Mallory’ (2021), starring Dianne Grossman and Seth Grossman

April 11, 2021

by Carla Hay

A family photo of Dianne Grossman, Seth Grossman and Mallory Grossman in “Mallory” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“Mallory” (2021)

Directed by Ash Patiño

Culture Representation: Taking place in New Jersey, the documentary film “Mallory” features a predominantly white group of people (with a few African Americans) discussing the life and legacy of 12-year-old Mallory Grossman, who committed suicide in 2017, after being bullied by some students at her school.

Culture Clash: Mallory’s parents (Dianne and Seth Grossman) have sued the school district for not doing more to stop the bullying, while the bullying students were not punished.

Culture Audience: “Mallory″ will appeal primarily to people want to learn more about what to do to help with protection from and prevention of childhood bullying and suicide.

Dianne Grossman In “Mallory” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

The documentary film “Mallory” should be essential viewing for anyone who cares about helping prevent bullying that can lead to suicides. It’s not an easy film to watch for people who are triggered by these issues. And the documentary doesn’t pretend to have all of the answers. But “Mallory” is a raw and very personal look at how one family experienced tragedy from these issues and is doing their best to that heal through educating people on what to do before it’s too late.

Directed by Ash Patiño, “Mallory” tells the story of 12-year-old Mallory Grossman, who committed suicide on June 14, 2017, by hanging herself in her bedroom closet at her home in Rockaway Township, New Jersey. Her suicide came after several months of Mallory experiencing vicious bullying at school. She wasn’t getting physically assaulted. She was being verbally harassed and cyberbullied by some female students at her school. And on at least one occasion, one of the bullies told Mallory that she should kill herself.

On the surface, Mallory seemed to have an idyllic childhood. Her parents Dianne Grossman and Seth Grossman were happily married. They lived with Mallory and their older daughter Carlee in a comfortable, upper-middle-class home in a safe neighborhood. Carlee is not interviewed in the documentary, but she is seen in footage at events for Mallory’s Army, the non-profit anti-bullying organization that Dianne and Seth Grossman founded in 2018, in Mallory’s honor. Mallory excelled in gymnastics. And for a time, Mallory was also a cheerleader.

Several people who knew Mallory—including family members, schoolmates, teachers and other kids’ parents—describe her in the documentary as a happy-go-lucky, compassionate child who always knew how to make other people smile. Mallory’s mother Dianne also says, “Mallory connected with nature.” The documentary includes several clips of Mallory in home videos where she appears to be a well-adjusted, happy kid.

Sounds perfect, right? Well, perfect isn’t reality. As Mallory’s parents say in the documentary, Mallory seemed to be a happy child to many people. But the happiness was often a façade that hid her inner turmoil, especially in the last several months of her life.

Mallory had a best friend named Bianca Marchese, who is interviewed in the documentary. Bianca and her mother Katee Petro speak highly of Mallory and share a lot of fond memories of her. Some of the home video clips include Bianca and Mallory goofing off together. And yet, Mallory would often complain to her mother that she had “no friends” at Copeland Middle School, where she had transferred in the new school year.

Why was Mallory being targeted by these bullies? (Mallory’s alleged bullies and their parents are not interviewed for the documentary.) Dianne says she believes that the bullies were jealous of Mallory because they perceived her to be a privileged rich girl even though the Grossman family isn’t wealthy. Mallory was also bullied over her gymnastics accomplishments, and the harassment got so bad that Mallory quit her gymnastics team.

Bullying doesn’t just come in the form of insulting people or assaulting them. It can also come in the form of making people feel like outcasts by refusing to let them sit next to you and excluding them from social gatherings where they should be included. It happened to Mallory a lot at school, according to what she told her parents. Students and teachers at the school witnessed Mallory being mistreated in this way, according to several people in the documentary. And still, nothing was done to help Mallory by anyone at her school.

It’s one thing to have social cliques. It’s another thing to cruelly go out of your way to let everyone know why someone is being excluded from a group, to gang up on someone to maintain the exclusion, and to pressure other people to exclude that person too. Some people handle bullying better than others. For those who are mentally or emotionally fragile, it can be too much and can lead to self-harm.

Dianne comments in the documentary about the deep emotional pain that Mallory hid from her family. On the day of the suicide, “All she said was, ‘Hey, I had a bad day. When are you coming home?’ The sadness must’ve been overwhelming.” Seth adds of Mallory’s tragically short life: “We’re definitely lucky we got 12 years … There was a special uniqueness about her, from when she was a year old.”

In some parts of the documentary, Seth and Dianne are interviewed in Mallory’s room. And in one heartbreaking scene, they describe the day that Mallory died. Seth found her non-responsive in the closet. Dianne was in New York City with Carlee that day to see the Broadway show “Waitress,” but they rushed home when they heard that Mallory had hurt herself. It wasn’t until Dianne and Carlee saw the emergency medics and police at their house that they knew how bad it was.

In the months before Mallory’s death, Dianne and Seth Grossman repeatedly brought their concerns about the bullying to school officials and to the parents of the bullies. And the Grossmans say that nothing was done by the school or the parents. Dianne and Seth also say that although they noticed Mallory was sometimes sad about the way she was treated in school, they had no idea that she could be suicidal.

And that’s why the Grossmans filed a lawsuit against the Rockaway Township Board of Education, Rockaway Township and employees of Copeland Middle School, who are all accused of failing to protect Mallory from the excessive bullying. The Grossmans have received a lot of national media attention for this lawsuit, which has not yet been resolved, as of this writing. Any of the defendants who publicly responded have denied the allegations, but they are not interviewed in this documentary.

After the lawsuit was filed, Greg McGann resigned as Rockaway Township school district superintendent. The documentary includes commentary from a teacher (and obvious friend of the Grossman family) named Karin Kasper, who was not an employee of Copeland Middle School. However, she has this opinion of what happened in how the school handled the bullying of Mallory: “The school made it look like it was Mallory’s fault. There’s a huge amount of victim blaming going on in how they treated her.”

Since Mallory’s death, Dianne has made speaking appearances at many schools to educate people about bullying and suicide prevention. The documentary includes some emotionally powerful clips of her speaking at schools and sharing her personal story about what happened to Mallory. Dianne sums up one of the main messages that she wants to get across in her speaking engagements and with her Mallory’s Army work: “If this can happen to Mallory Grossman, it can happen to any one of our kids.” After one of these speaking appearances, Dianne comments in a documentary interview that the students who tend to cry the most at her speaking appearances are the bullies and the students who are being bullied.

The documentary also includes footage of several Mallory’s Army charity events, including a 5K running marathon, a hockey game and a motorcycle ride. There’s also footage of student workshops where students act out scenarios of how they can prevent bullying and how to protect other students who are being bullied. It’s repeated several times in the documentary that bullying realistically won’t go away, but schools, parents and students need to be held more accountable in how bullying is handled.

Several people are interviewed in this film, but the documentary isn’t too overstuffed with talking heads. The interviewees include Dianne Grossman’s sister Angela Piazza; Diane Grossman’s mother Teresa Toella, and family friends Heather Gallagher and Meredith Lutz, whose son David Lutz was a friend of Mallory’s who says that he if had been able to see the bullying himself at the school, he would have tried to protect her.

Also interviewed are North Star gymnastic coaches Melissa Jones and Christian Campitiello, who have high praise for Mallory; Grossman family attorneys Diane Sammons and Bruce Nagel, who are partners at Nagel Rice Law Firm; licensed professional counselor Emily Ryzuk; Mallory’s Army member Jenn Stillwell; Inez Barbiero of Core Growth Strategies, which helps small businesses; and Teresa Reuter and Todd Schobel, co-directors of anti-bullying for STOPit Solutions, a Holmdel, New Jersey-based tech group aimed at stopping cyberbullying. There are some people (children and adults) interviewed who have experienced childhood bullying, including Daniel Mendoza, Keisha Johnson and Briana Beuselinck.

The Grossmans don’t just want change in the Rockaway school system through their lawsuit. They also want legislative change that can better protect school children from being bullied, even if they’re not in the Rockaway school system. Because the public educational system in the U.S. is controlled by individual states, the Grossmans are starting with their home state of New Jersey.

The documentary shows Dianne meeting with New Jersey state senator Joe Pennacchio of District 26 to talk about passing a New Jersey law to hold the state’s schools and parents of bullies more accountable for bullying that takes place in these schools. In the meeting, Pennacchio expresses his support for a possible bill proposal that parents of bullies have to go to court if their children who are accused of bullying. As of this writing, nothing has been changed in New Jersey laws about bullying in New Jersey schools since Mallory’s death.

The “Mallory” documentary has some minor post-production flaws that don’t take away from the movie’s overall message. Some of the editing in “Mallory” could have been fine-tuned better. And the sound mixing is very uneven at times. However, most people who watch this documentary would agree that the movie is very effective in its intention and that watching this film is both heartbreaking and inspiring.

Gravitas Ventures released “Mallory” on digital, VOD, Blu-ray and DVD on February 23, 2021.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Low Tide’

April 29, 2019

by Carla Hay

Jaeden Martell and Keean Johnson in “Low Tide” (Photo courtesy of A24 Films)

“Low Tide”

Directed by Kevin McMullin

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 28, 2019.

The Jersey Shore in the dramatic thriller “Low Tide” isn’t at all like what’s portrayed in dumbed-down reality TV shows filled with argumentative, fame-hungry people who don’t want real jobs. “Low Tide” (the first feature film from writer/director Kevin McMullin, a New Jersey native) is told from the perspective of 1980s working-class teenagers, who have simmering resentment of the well-to-do people who vacation on the Jersey Shore. The locals have a name for these wealthy interlopers: “benny,” because they usually come from the nearby cities of Bayonne, Elizabeth, Newark and New York.

The local residents need the wealthy vacationers (who often have second homes on the Jersey Shore) to keep the local economy going. The money that flows in during peak season is needed during slower seasons. It’s a cycle that often keeps the working-class locals stuck in a co-dependent rut with the rich people who spend money on their goods and services.

In this environment of tension over class and wealth, three local teen rebels—Alan (played by Keean Johnson), Red (played by Alex Neustaedter) and Smitty (played Daniel Zolghadri)—commit burglaries together in unoccupied houses owned by the type of privileged people who use the Jersey Shore as a place for another home or other real-estate investments. Alan is the heartthrob of the group, Red is the bullying leader, and Smitty is the scrawny runt who’s constantly trying to prove his merits to Alan and Red.

The movie begins with the trio almost getting caught during a botched burglary. While escaping, Smitty jumps off of a roof and breaks his foot, but he’s carried to safety by his two friends. In the panicked confusion, Smitty accidentally leaves one of his shoes behind at the scene of the crime. It’s a mistake that will come back to haunt them later in the story. Smitty’s hobbling around town on crutches doesn’t go unnoticed by Sergeant Kent (played by Shea Whigham), the local cop who’s investigating the burglaries.

It’s summer, and these high schoolers have a lot of time on their hands. In between making mischief, they go to the beach, boardwalk and other local hangouts, where Alan meets and becomes attracted to a pretty teen named Mary (played by Kristine Froseth), who (somewhat predictably) happens to be in the benny crowd . Alan strikes up a budding romance with Mary, while they both try to ignore the differences in their socioeconomic status. He isn’t exactly the smartest guy in the room, so he doesn’t notice that Red is also interested in Mary—or he’s at least jealous that Alan might be accepted into a benny social circle, while the rich kids in town treat Red like a dirtbag.

Meanwhile, the police use Smitty’s lost shoe as evidence to bust him for the botched burglary. Even though Smitty has been arrested and let out on bail, he won’t snitch on his friends. Smitty’s broken foot and arrest have put the three friends’ crime spree on hold. But when they find out that a wealthy elderly recluse has died and has left behind an unoccupied house, it’s a temptation they find hard to resist.

With Smitty out of commission, Alan enlists his younger, well-behaved brother Peter (played by Jaeden Martell), who reluctantly agrees to replace Smitty as their lookout during the burglary. After breaking into the house, Peter and Alan find a bag of rare gold coins. This time, the police catch them in the act of the burglary—Alan is arrested, but Peter and Red narrowly escape from the scene of the crime in separate ways. Unbeknownst to Red, Peter has kept the bag of coins and has hidden the loot in a secluded, wooded area near the beach.

After Alan is released on bail, Peter shares his secret about the coins with Alan. The two brothers decide to lie and tell Red and Smitty that they didn’t take any valuables found at the house because they had been interrupted by the police. Alan and Peter then take a few of the coins to get appraised at a local pawn shop, and they discover (based on the estimates) that the coins are worth a total of about $100,000.

Alan is eager to sell the coins, but Peter cautions that they can’t do too much too soon with the coins, or else it will raise suspicions. They bitterly argue over how to cash in on their stolen haul and how much money should be spent. The conflict leads Peter to doubt if he can trust Alan.

Meanwhile, the police are building a case against this group of teenage thieves (in this relatively small beach city, it’s easy to know who hangs out with each other), and it isn’t long before the cops and other members of the community find out that the dead man had some valuable coins that have gone missing from his house. The rest of the movie is filled with tension over secrets, lies and betrayal, as Red and Smitty begin to wonder if Peter really has the stolen coins, and if anyone in the group will snitch about the burglaries. Red, who has a history of being a violent thug, is also seething with anger when he notices that Alan and Mary have gotten closer.

“Low Tide” isn’t a groundbreaking film—the movie’s screenplay and production use a lot of familiar tropes—but the story is elevated by the believable performances of the cast. Martell (who played Losers Club member Bill Denbrough in the 2017 horror blockbuster film “It”) is a particular standout, since he brings an intelligent sensitivity to the role. Peter is younger than the teenage boys who’ve lured him into their criminal mess, but he’s wiser and has more inner strength than they do. In that sense, “Low Tide” is also an authentic portrait of coming-of-age masculinity in a pre-Internet/pre-smartphone era when teenagers didn’t need social media to validate themselves. “Low Tide” is a crime thriller, but the movie is also a compelling look at how these boys make decisions that will have a profound effect on the type the men that they will become.

UPDATE: A24 Films will release “Low Tide” in select U.S. theaters on October 4, 2019.