Bully (United States, 2011)

March 28, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Bully Poster

Columbine has never been a mystery to me. A tragedy, yes, but not mystery. The most surprising thing about Columbine is that it took so long for something like that to happen. Anyone who has been bullied probably understands this, and there's little in Lee Hirsch's documentary, Bully, that will be considered eye-opening to victims of all shapes, sizes, races, and creeds. But for those who have been lucky enough to have escaped the physical and verbal taunts of other children, Bully is likely to leave a powerful impression.

When one decides to become a parent, there are a host of things to worry about. Drugs. Alcohol. Scholastic aptitude. Elmo. And so forth... Bullying, however, doesn't appear on the average mom or dad's radar unless it happens and there's a unfortunate tendency to dismiss it as an ugly part of childhood, "kids being cruel." Until, that is, the chickens come home to roost. The head-in-the-sand mentality too often employed by parents, school teachers and administrators, law enforcement officials, and others is what leads to tragedies like Columbine and equally heart-rending stories like those of Tyler Long and Ty Smalley, two teenagers who committed suicide rather than continue to endure bullying.

Hirsch's documentary presents five interwoven stories. The first, which transpires in Sioux City, Iowa, focuses on 12-year old Alex Libby, whose appearance is that of a "typical geek." He's a timid loner whose biggest problems occur on the bus trips to and from school. He has become so accustomed to the bullying that he has begun to show signs of the abuse victim's mentality, blaming himself and thinking "it's not that bad." His parents, aware of the situation, make repeated attempts to force the school to take action but the vice principal is shockingly out-of-touch with the situation, believing that bullying can be cured by getting the victim and perpetrator to shake hands. She also states that when she rode on Alex's bus route, everyone was well behaved. (Duh.)

Kelby Johnson, a 16-year old lesbian in Tuttle, Oklahoma, has become an outcast since coming out of the closet. In a town where the Bible is all mighty, someone admitting to a "sinful" sexual orientation becomes the object of taunts and, most damaging, silent hostility. Aside from a small group of friends, Kelby has no one to turn to, and she admits having thought about (and perhaps tried) suicide.

Ja'Meya Jackson, like Alex, is often bullied on the bus. One day, she steals her mother's gun and uses it to terrorize those who have tormented her. No one is injured, but Ja'Meya is arrested and jailed in a psychiatric hospital for juvenile offenders. She blames her action on bullying but the local law enforcement officials are unmoved. Their analysis of the situation makes it clear they have never been on the receiving end of the kind of treatment received by Ja'Meya.

The other two stories relate to the families of boys who have killed themselves as a result of bullying. In October 2009, 17-year old Tyler Long hung himself in his bedroom, leaving behind grieving parents and siblings. Following their son's death, David and Tina vowed to make speaking out against bullying their crusade. Not long after Tyler's death, 11-year old Ty Smalley of Oklahoma committed suicide, pushing his parents, Kirk and Laura, into the national spotlight when they started an on-line anti-bullying organization.

It's one thing to hear about bullying; it's another thing to see it happening. Candid footage, especially of Alex, illustrates how pernicious it is while simultaneously showing how commonplace it is viewed by everyone except the victim. Even the perpetrators, if confronted, would likely shrug their shoulders and plead ignorance. What did they do? Teased the kid a little. They didn't beat him up. Most bullying is like that - the psychological impact is more devastating than the physical one and the antagonists would be shocked to learn they are being classified as "bullies."

Hirsch (who admits to having been bullied as a child) uses minimum footage for maximum impact. We don't need to see a lot of it in order to empathize with the victims. Interviews with Alex and Kelby paint them as thoughtful, intelligent individuals who function well when not under threat of harassment. Not surprisingly, the most poignant moments are those in which the parents of the dead children speak about their lost sons and show photographs and old home movies. This is manipulative, but it serves a purpose. By the time we realize Tyler is dead, he has been humanized. He's no longer a statistic.

Bully encourages ex-victims to look at the situation through lenses unclouded by the passage of time. How many people, upon seeing Alex's bus ride experiences, will feel an uncomfortable flash of recognition? Or, hearing the platitudes expressed by the vice principal, will feel a sympathetic rush of anger? For those unfamiliar with bullying, the movie provides an opportunity to gain a little first-person experience. Intellectually recognizing that bullying is "awful" is not the same thing as seeing it happen.

It's possible that the MPAA, in one of the most boneheaded decisions made in its more than 40 years of classifying movies, may have helped raise Bully's profile. By slapping the film with an R-rating for using too many "fucks," it generated a controversy. The Weinstein Company milked this for all it was worth then, when their appeal failed by one vote to garner a PG-13, the distributor elected to thumb its nose at the MPAA and release the film unrated. Bully is sufficiently powerful to impact a viewer regardless of age, but this should be mandatory viewing for kids between 10 and 17. (In my experience, bullying is at its worst during 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th grades.) Hopefully, exhibitors will show more intelligence when applying an age admission policy than the MPAA did in determining the rating.

Bully touches on how difficult this pervasive behavior has become to treat in an era when parental discipline is at an all-time low. It illustrates the lack of understanding often exhibited by school officials and the willingness to coddle bullies rather than provide tangible, painful consequences for their actions. A slap on the wrist will not only embolden them, but will encourage others to exhibit similar behavior toward other "pests." Communication is also an issue, since many bullied children are quiet and secretive by nature, and are rarely willingly to openly discuss what is happening. We see this with Alex, whose father has to coax every detail from him. The purpose of Bully is to educate and promote discussion. If the problem is not solved, there will be more Columbines and additional stories like Tyler and Ty's.

Bully (United States, 2011)

Run Time: 1:34
U.S. Release Date: 2012-03-30
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1