Bully tackles the issue of adolescent peer bullying, particularly as it occurs in schools. The film gained some notoriety the last couple months as it has served as a battleground between the Weinstein Company, which produced it, and the MPAA, the organization that assigns ratings to films, sometimes to controversial effect. The MPAA gave Bully an R rating for language, Harvey Weinstein called foul and said he’d just release the film unrated, the story blew up in the press, and compromise was achieved when a few F-words were cut to “qualify” for an arbitrary PG-13. At stake in the rating decision was the audience of teens who ostensibly would most benefit from seeing the film.
That’s the back-story and the extent of my preconceived notions going into the screening. To my surprise, Bully is less geared to a teen audience than I had expected. This is less a school film the likes of which would be shown to a class to spell a substitute teacher than it is directed at actual teachers, administrators, and parents. If progress is to be made in epidemic bullying, it will have to come from the top, Bully argues.
The film’s name is even a bit of a misnomer: Rather than considering the titular bully and what makes him or her tick, it is focused entirely upon the bullied victims and the system that allows the abuse in the first place. Bully’s perhaps most critical flaw is that it doesn’t investigate what makes kids bully each other in the first place, or give a voice to the bully — not for them to provide a defense but to have complete coverage of the issue so that progress can be made.
Regardless, those subjects Bully does focus on — Alex, 12, Iowa; Kelby, 16, Oklahoma; Ja’Maya, 14, Mississippi; the Long family, Georgia; and the Smalley family, Oklahoma — combine to form a patchwork of victimhood, for lack of a better term.
Alex is picked on because of his looks. Through increasingly intense situations (at least from an edited narrative perspective), Alex is the target of taunts and violence that get so bad the film’s producers had to show their footage to parents and school officials to intervene. Because some of the physical violence is on camera, it begs the age-old documentary question: How much of what the audience sees would be happening, or happening differently, if not for the presence of the cameras. Are some of these kids increasing or, disturbingly, decreasing their bullying of Alex because they are being filmed?
Kelby is gay and lives in a town small enough that there’s really no one else like her. Her situation brings into focus the idea that if she were in a bigger city, things may not be so difficult for her. In fact, all of those profiled live in rural areas. Is bullying worse in rural America versus larger schools and communities? The film doesn’t say.
Ja’Maya lives not all that far from Memphis. She’s different from Bully’s other subjects because she reacted to her bullies differently: She pulled a gun on them, “just to scare them.” For this, she has been incarcerated in a juvenile detention center and is facing north of 40 felony charges. She admits she did a very stupid thing, and the pain she and her mother feel shows deep regret. She was bullied by a pack of kids and reacted poorly. She’s a victim, too. She’s extremely fortunate that the gun didn’t go off and no one got hurt. It reminds one that bullying has reportedly played a role in a number of school shootings over the years, including those at Columbine, Jonesboro, and Paducah; the day before their irrevocable actions, the to-be shooters were themselves yet more innocent victims of bullying.
Next on the list after abandoned mine and soundproof basement, as far as horrifying settings go, has got to be school bus. Like most everyone, I was bullied in middle school, though in retrospect I skated through fairly unscathed. But when it did happen, it happened on the school bus. Seeing what Alex goes through on his school bus prompts a visceral reaction. Like a pool of standing water leads to mosquitoes in the summertime, school buses seem to spawn bullying. If we shouldn’t actually abolish school buses, maybe it’s time to rethink how they can be made safe transportation for children.
If Alex’s school-bus nightmares invoke unpleasant memories, even more effective is the palpable sorrow from the stories of the Long and Smalley families. Each had a son who committed suicide after being systematically broken down by bullying. Edited into interviews of the fathers recounting what happened at the end are home movies of their children as toddlers and stories of how happy they once were. As a parent of two kids who are not yet old enough to be exposed to real bullying yet, I can tell you I wanted to leave the theater, go home, and hug them and never let them out of my sight. It’s crushing, unimaginable, what the Long and Smalley families have gone through.
Director Lee Hirsch fails the subject matter to some degree, mostly through overusing such tired docu tropes as shaky cam (edginess!) and the camera coming in and out of focus on a subject’s face as they share emotional moments (intimacy!).
The bullies themselves are villains, mostly off-screen, but one school administrator unwittingly provides herself as another person to blame. The assistant principal at Alex’s school is routinely clueless on camera, damning kids to further bullying because she just doesn’t see that it’s a problem in her school. She comes to represent the teachers everywhere who think that the kids can just work it out, the educators who think a handshake following an instance of physical bullying means the issue is put to bed, the institutions that ignorantly provide the situations in which bullying can thrive.
The point is driven home as the Long family holds a town hall meeting to try to get school officials and town police to see that bullying is happening, that it caused their son to kill himself. But the sheriff says his hands are tied, and the school administration doesn’t bother showing up.