3 Stars out of 4
Bully is a documentary that raises awareness about an increasingly urgent issue in schools, work, and society by and large. A documentary, versus mere public discourse, is a more direct and effective mode of communication. It represents the issue unwaveringly on the screen, for the audience to absorb and consider. Bully is a template for change, and it works on that level.
This is an important film. I sense people, including myself, will or have seen it because they were bullied, not because they were the bully. In fact, this documentary really should be entitled Bullied since director Lee Hirsch spends his time studying the victims of this malicious act, not the perpetrators. This is fine, considering Hirsch’s film is enabled with tact and attentiveness, as it approaches its topic with its ears not its mouth.
The documentary follows 5 groups of subjects: Alex Libby from Iowa; Kelby Johnson from Oklahoma; Ja’Meya from Mississippi; David and Tina Long from Georgia; and Kirk Smalley from Oklahoma. Alex is a 12 year-old who is a born maverick. No matter what he can never fit in with the kids in school. They call him names, punch and strangle him. Alex says, “most kids don’t want to be around me. I feel like I belong somewhere else.” It’s precisely this isolation that Bully wishes to comfort. Hirsch’s portrait of his subjects remains intimate and true.
Hirsch also reaches out to Kelby, a transgender girl, who has a bitter-sweet story about how her segregation from her community was saved by well-founded friendships. Ja’Meya was bullied to the point she brought a gun on a school bus, which – to say the least – could have led to devastation. We are introduced to the Long and Smalley family; they experienced tragedy when their sons Tyler Long and Ty Smalley couldn’t outlive their bullying issues. His son’s death inspired Kirk to start an anti-bullying club for students called Stand for the Silent. Together, the group stood for an earnest message: I am Somebody. Together, we can stop the bullying.
Bully stands for something very similar. It’s a work that is sad but stays positive on its inevitable climb into catharsis. It leaves us on a hopeful note even if Hirsch does not explore the reason for bullying. It’s the toughest of questions: why does bullying exist? It is much easier to answer what than to explain how or why. Bully takes the former approach; it shows, through first-hand footage, that bullying predominates our school’s hallways and classrooms.
If you asked me why I think bullying exists, I would say it is taught. No one is born inherently cruel. It is indoctrinated. From who? I would assume parents, teachers, and peers. The parents in Bully are generally concerned individuals, but they bear a child who is on the receiving end. As for teachers, Bully follows the assistant principal of an Iowa middle school, but – for my money – isn’t critical enough towards her clear tendency for lip service.
I remember some of the issues I had with my peers in school. Lots of name calling, humiliation, and isolation. I went to teachers, only for most of them to indulge me in the platitudes of “violence is not the answer” or “two wrongs don’t make a right.” Granted, some teachers were helpful mediators. I dearly recall my high school volleyball coach, who was always on the lookout for roughhousing and name-calling. There’s a scene in Bully that shows a vice principal deal with bullying on a bus accordingly. She goes straight to the source and asks, “why? Why would you punch him?”. It’s interesting because the child responds by feigning to be a victim.
…Or is it feigning? Bullying, like many topical issues, is a gray area. When does the bully becomes the bullied, and vice-versa? I suspect Hirsch would have made a better documentary if he chose to answer this difficult question. His documentary, above all, is devoted to simple answers and strives to emotionally affect his audience. But in a way that vindicates the viewer, and distances them from the bully. Maybe this is a good first example. To show students what bullying is, that it is wrong, and that we must overcome it.
In this respect, Bully is an engaging and effective documentary. My criticism, however, is that Hirsch makes matters too black-and-white. He creates a clear boundary between victim and perpetrator, in order for his documentary to satisfy a young (and, thus, more credulous) audience. A documentary that evaluates the blurring of this boundary would I think engender a more thought-provoking experience.
Still, Bully is touching and inspiring. It invites in our sympathy effortlessly. But it’s easy for audiences to relate to the bullied. How many of us would dare relate to the bully?
Note: The MPAA’s original R rating is a travesty. While Bully features one moment of profanity, it’s meant to be expressive not exploitative. Thankfully due to a petition that gained over 300,000 signatures, Bully was released by The Weinstein Company under a (apt) PG-13 rating on April 13, 2012.