REVIEW: Bully 'Raises Awareness' About Bullying — But Is That Enough?

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The schoolyard bully may be a stock character, a cliché, but in the world of Lee Hirsch’s earnest documentary Bully, he’s very real: The picture tells the stories of several kids — all of them from fairly rural parts of the United States — who suffer daily at the hands of their classmates, fielding everything from hurtful taunts to physical assault.

Some of them, like 14-year-old Ja’Meya, fight back by blowing up: Fed up with her schoolmates’ gibes and insults, Jackson gets a hold of her mother’s handgun and brandishes it on the school bus one day, a tactic that earned her multiple felony charges and a long stint in a detention center. Others, like 17-year-old Tyler, break down and commit suicide. But the movie’s most poignant case is that of a kid who is still, at least during the span of time covered by the film, toughing it out against his tormentors: Alex is a smallish, graceful-gangly 12-year-old who deals with the cruelty of his classmates with a shrug and a sideways smile, as if he were somehow hoping his faux indifference would make them stop. His father lectures him, urging him to fight back, but we can see that sweet, open-hearted Alex is incapable of doing so — not so much physically as temperamentally.

Alex’s story is the centerpiece of the movie, and of all the case studies here, it’s the one most likely to break your heart. Bully is effective as a document of the pain that too many kids suffer at the hands of their cruel and sometimes possibly even psychopathic peers, particularly in parts of the country where the idea of “normal” is pretty narrow. All of the kids in Bully live somewhere in Middle America, which is not to say that bullying doesn’t happen in big cities. But if Kelby, a teenager from Tuttle, Okla., who faced persecution from her peers (and even from teachers) when she came out as a lesbian, lived in Berkeley, you wouldn’t be seeing her in this documentary. Kelby’s father speaks on-camera, saying that he offered to move the family to an area that might be more hospitable. Kelby, who comes off as self-assured and unflappable, refused the offer: “If I leave, they win,” she states plainly, although by the end of the movie, it’s suggested that all the aggression has worn her down.

How can you not feel anything for a girl like Kelby? Bully cuts to the core of the way cruelty wounds these kids. But Hirsch isn’t content to let these stories speak for themselves; he attempts to fashion them into an instrument for change, and it’s there that Bully falters, particularly as it winds its way toward the end. The families of bullied children rally to make tearful speeches, light candles, release balloons into the air, and otherwise call for an official end to bullying. Their efforts are noble, and certainly understandable, but their goals are wispy — bullies, like the poor, are always with us, and no amount of joining hands is going to stamp them out.

Bully is much better when it sticks to simple storytelling. And storytelling, not grandstanding, is the thing that just might grab the attention of, say, school administrators, people who can have some effect on how bullies are dealt with. Storytelling is also the only possible way to get through to the bullies themselves — though the only way those kids are likely to see the movie is if their schools arrange it. To that end, the Weinstein Co., which is releasing the film, appealed the MPAA ratings board’s original R rating. (The picture includes a little bit of spicy schoolyard language – which is part of the point.) After failing to sway the board into giving the picture a PG-13 — which would ensure that more kids would be able to see it — the Weinstein Co. decided to release the film unrated. That could cause some chains to forgo it, although AMC Theaters has announced that it will allow children under 17 to see the film with a parent, or without if the child presents a signed permission slip.

But beyond the hope that a few really bad eggs who see the film will be converted, Bully is hardly persuasive as a call to action, not because it isn’t emotionally affecting (it is), but because it’s so adamantly preaching to the converted. The parents of bullied kids will totally get Bully; they’re also the people most likely to go to see it, and they’re most likely to be appalled at the behavior of the school administrator who meets with Alex’s parents. They come to her office, distraught, in the hopes that she’ll finally do something to end their kid’s suffering — most recently, another kid has been seen poking at him with a pencil on the school bus. (After following Alex around school with a camera for a year, Hirsch became concerned for the child’s safety and showed his footage to Alex’s parents and to administrators at the Sioux City, Iowa, school he attends.) The administrator feebly reassures Alex's parents she’ll do something about the situation and then turns the subject to her own grandchild, showing them a picture of the precious bundle, ostensibly to prove to them how much she cares about kids. Her cheerful unflappability is precisely the problem: Earlier, we’ve seen her deal with an instance of bullying in which she’s clearly being manipulated by the instigator. Maybe Bully will have some effect on the way school administrators handle the bullying problem. For Alex’s sake, you certainly hope so. That vague sort of righteous arm-waving we know as “raising awareness” certainly isn’t going to do him any good.

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  • Patrick Hallstein / McEvoy-Halston says:

    Re: The parents of bullied kids will totally get Bully; they’re also the people most likely to go to see it, and they’re most likely to be appalled at the behavior of the school administrator who meets with Alex’s parents.

    If kids can find themselves readily bullied at school because they're cowed by their parents at home, then if you're right in what you argue the film helps keep the primary bullies fully unaware of themselves. Thou shall not be aware.

    In addition to seeing what can be done to stop bullying in the school, would we have a school administrator ask parents of bullied children if they wouldn't mind someone coming around to take a peek inside their households to get at what else might possibly have drained their kids of self-esteem -- that is if stopping all possible causes of bullying is the uniform and only ultimate goal? Or just that they let themselves be strong-armed to flail about sufficiently to pacify their current rise of neurosis?

  • Max Renn says:

    As someone who was bullied at school, I can relate to this subject. I was picked on at several ages, from young child to teenager. As a teenager I reached a point where enough is enough and exploded, flipping a desk over on the perpetrator behind me and having to explain myself. I wasn't touched again after that event though. The earlier bullying still affects me years later as an adult in the form of low self-esteem.

    • Patrick Hallstein / McEvoy-Halston says:

      Low self-esteem is what drew on the bullies in the first place: if you hadn't had it previously, you wouldn't have provided the satisfactions they were psychically in deep need of. They've been bullied too, and they're looking to make someone else play the part of weak "them," and themselves the part of the empowered. It's called identifying with the perpetrator, and it's a common psychic defense mode: most of us in the '80s identified with perpetrator Thatcher / Reagan, in their bullying of pretty much everyone. Your flipping over the desk probably confused their categorization of you, making you slip not so much into the category of the dangerous as into the category of non or less-applicable -- it probably wouldn't have just have been the action itself, but the "alien" conviction behind it (i.e., your likely rise there of self-esteem).

      Track down what drew on the low-self-esteem-attracted species of tormented humanity -- bullies -- and you'll get your best start on living more of your adult life fully enfranchised, free of the repercussions of the previous early humping of crap.

  • Bruno says:

    ''Bully is effective as a document of the suffering that too many kids suffer...''

    Suffering they suffer?...

    That is the line that appears on Rotten Tomatoes, doesn't show you in the best light. Just change it to ''are subject to'' and you're good to go.

    Aside from that, good review.


    • Stephanie Zacharek says:

      Thank you, Bruno! Fixed -- and I really appreciate the heads up.

    • S.T. VanAirsdale says:

      Excuse me? Every kid "is subject to" bullying. Not every kid does suffer it though -- just, as noted here (and in the film, apparently), too many.

      Aside from that, good comment.


  • Peter Lillycrop says:

    The problem with Bully, and most films on the education system, isn't how they deal with the problems of education but of they're ignorance of the cause. For example it has become all to apt to compare schools to prisons (an inescapable comparison if anything since our modern education system is based of a persian model of indoctrination, which it self was partial based off prisons), now beyond the moral quagmire that a system of education should be even comparable to a system of incarceration, the fact of the matter is that if you were to look at the Stanford prison experiment the cause for a bullying "epidemic" becomes readily clear. The blame neither lies on the bully, the parents, the administrators, or even the school in general, but of our societies unwillingness to, in the words of John Holt; "to end this ugly and anti-human business of people shaping and to allow and help people to help themselves."

    • Patrick Hallstein / McEvoy-Halston says:

      What shaped society into something anti-human, Peter? If none of the people forging and constituting it are simply anti-human, how did society ever become fully what they are not? The Stanford prison experiment has been used to universalize people, make them all as if intrinsically the same -- neither good or bad, all fully manipulatable into the grossest of demons or (one'd expect) the most blessed of angels, determined by how they're placed and organized. The only people de facto otherwise -- though of course out of false modesty rather than conviction, he'd deny it -- are people like Zimbardo, who have at least cottoned on.

      Perhaps explore what has been discovered about Milgrim's experiments, that certain kinds of people can "be made" (they aren't actually made to do anything -- they're taking advantage of a fully guilt-free situation to disassociate into an "agentic state" [Milgram's words], to merge with their own sadistic internal persecutors, to harm the weak, defenceless, and therefore guilty), and certain kinds much less so or not at all. (So not to worry, if the world ever once again turned scary Nazi, not all of you would strangely find yourself hypnotized away from your normal self into someone gleeful at mass persecutions of ruinous asocials.) If you hadn't already fully known it before and when you were most impressionable, experiments like Stanfords and Milgram's have nothing to play to or re-awaken.

      • Peter Lillycrop says:

        Patrick, it was the education system, not society, that I was calling anti-human. I thought I made that clear in my earlier post, but apparently not. The quote was just an excerpt from a larger one, here it is in full; "Education... now seems to me perhaps the most authoritarian and dangerous of all the social inventions of mankind. It is the deepest foundation of the modern slave state, in which most people feel themselves to be nothing but producers, consumers, spectators, and 'fans,' driven more and more, in all parts of their lives, by greed, envy, and fear. My concern is not to improve 'education' but to do away with it, to end the ugly and antihuman business of people-shaping and to allow and help people to shape themselves."

        • Patrick Hallstein / McEvoy-Halston says:

          "The blame neither lies on the bully, the parents, the administrators, or even the school in general, but of our societies unwillingness to, in the words of John Holt; "to end this ugly and anti-human business of people shaping and to allow and help people to help themselves."

          If society isn't willing to end cruelty it when it ostensibly could do so, isn't it being designated anti-human?

          To me Peter, society or any of its systems isn't/aren't something apart from bullies / parents / administrators -- that is, the people, and it doesn't pre-exist and therefore determine them: it's what bubbles up in a predictable fashion from the exact nature of the people constituting it. So when someone argues it's not the people but the system, it's just meaningless to me. It very much IS the people, because the particular nature of the systems out there register THEIR aggregate want. If more parents WANTED their kids to be encouraged to shape themselves, the education system and society that would enable it would inevitably follow suit.

          • Peter Lillycrop says:

            What you say is absolutely true Patrick, I agree that people dictate the system they are in, but if thats the rule than education is the exception. The majority of the people in the education system are children, they are the ones most effected by it, and they're the reason it even began. These people can't vote, there are laws in place forcing them to go (whether they are actually enforced is beside the point), they don't decide the curriculum, they're segregated by age, face draconian rule due to zero tolerance policies, and have all there rights suspended when faced with punishment. They have no power to change the system so they must change to suit the system. Up to thirteen years of someone's life when their mind should be free to wander and to discover the truths of the world that interest them is forced to spend there days cooped up in a building, often with people they don't like, and having everything deemed necessary by the government force feed learned. If that isn't anti-human I don't know what is.

            Education is just a single facet of society, a terrible destructive one but single facet none the less. As for how a system can be anti-human and the people in not is quite simple; ignorance. First alternatives to public or private schools are either ghastly misrepresented (home-schooling) or completely unheard of (unschooling). Secondly most people in western society went to school in one way or another and because they went through it its somehow "okay". Third because education is an institution, those employed by it don't want it to end because they don't want to lose there jobs so they'll overstate the importance of the system. Finally its all to common for people to confuse a dislike of school for a dislike of learning and that if youths were left to their own devices that learn nothing, an anti-human statement in of it self since our ability to learn is what lead to the evolution of homo-sapiens.

            As stated I agree that systems are dictated by people, but as a whole. A single person is at the mercy of any system.