For a film that understandably only scratches the surface of its topic, Bully carries a devastating emotional punch. A powerful examination of aggressive behavior in American schools — much of it unchecked by administrators, law enforcement, parents or any adult in authority — the movie focuses on a handful of families affected by bullying, some to a devastating extent. The film will leave you spent, disturbed and sorrowful — and all too aware of ugly truths about human tendencies.
But buckle up. With its desired rating now official — the MPAA ordered an R at first for a couple of barely discernible F bombs but has since acquiesced to director Lee Hirsch’s refusal to cut a pivotal scene and agreed to a PG-13 — Bully is mandatory viewing for kids, parents, teachers, administrators, school liaison officers — anyone connected with education as well as anyone who believes today’s kids are just too coddled.
Hirsch, known for the anti-apartheid documentary Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony, chose families in Oklahoma, Mississippi, Georgia and Iowa for the project, and he opens the film with David Long, a Murray County, Ga., father with a haunted air, talking about his son Tyler, who had a form of Asperger’s syndrome and suffered years of teasing at school — until he hung himself in a closet at 17.
From there, Hirsch introduces us to other kids, notably 12-year-old Alex from Sioux City, Iowa, oldest in a family of five children. Alex also has Asperger’s and endures physical and psychological torture aboard his school bus. Other kids threaten to kill him, stab him with pencils. Alex, though, doesn’t let on to his parents what’s happening; he calls the boys who pick on him his friends. “People call me fish face,” he tells the camera matter of factly. “I don’t mind.” You will mind, though. Hirsch obtained surprising access to Alex’s school and bus, and what happens to Alex there is the stuff of every child’s nightmares. When pressed by Alex’s worried parents, school officials prove shockingly clueless or inept. If you wonder why East Middle allowed such access and then behaved so cavalierly: A Sioux City superintendent recently told The Washington Post that the filmmaking was approved because of a school system partnership with the Waitt Institute for Violence Prevention and that administrators hoped the movie would showcase the school’s successes. Instead, its staff comes off as villains or imbeciles.
Hirsch also introduces Kelby, a teenage lesbian who had to quit her Oklahoma high school basketball team because no one would play with her, and Ja’Maya, a baby-faced 14-year-old stuck in the juvenile justice system because she brought her mother’s gun on the bus and threatened the students who were picking on her. (Yes, parents: Your fed-up teenager knows where you keep that gun.) Hirsch had no access to Kelby’s school, but her father’s admission that discovering he had a gay child “has made me completely re-evaluate who and what I am” resonates deeply. Ja’Maya’s story is the least effective dramatically; despite some grainy footage of what happened on her bus, there’s no real, immediate narrative. Hirsch uses her as a cautionary tale of what might happen when a child is pushed too far, but purely from a audience’s viewpoint, her segments feel dragged out and repetitive.
As probing as it is, Bully raises disquieting questions it doesn’t attempt to answer. Are kids who live in urban areas equally as susceptible to bullying? What about the parents of the bullies? Are they uncaring, overprotective, ignorant? Is there any hope that a society that rewards aggressive male behavior can change to become more compassionate? Can an openly gay teenager ever be safe from ridicule when religious figures and politicians continue to demonize homosexuality publicly? There’s no way to come up with solid conclusions in one small documentary. But at least Hirsch, who tries hard to end on a hopeful note, has insisted on a vital discussion.
Director: Lee Hirsch.
Producers: Lee Hirsch, Cynthia Lowen.
A Weinstein Co. release. Running time: 99 minutes. Brief vulgar language. Opens Friday April 13 in Miami-Dade: Sunset, South Beach; in Palm Beach: Parisian.