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