Our Score: 4 out of 5 stars
Bully is an eye opening and heartfelt doc from Lee Hirsch taking an extremely close look at the victims of bullying in America’s schools. Through the eyes of a select few subjects, Hirsch exposes larger problems in the handling of a growing epidemic.
Bullying is not a new problem in American schools and perhaps, as this film shows, that is at the heart of the ambivalence with which it can often be dealt. If something is viewed as a rite of passage, there is a heavy level of acceptance associated with it that must be overcome. Hirsch has chosen his subjects to show the diverse range the impact of bullying can have. From two sets of parents whose boys committed suicide, to a girl in juvenile detention for wielding–but not firing– a gun at her tormentors. Ultimately, the film is a call to action for students and teachers to find the tools and support needed to cope with and prevent abuse.
At the heart of the film and given the most screen time as far as I could tell was Alex, a sweet, if awkward, 12 year old from Iowa. He’s been branded “fish face” by his bullies and is additionally physically tormented on a daily basis. Disturbingly Alex doesn’t raise a fuss about it because he’s accepted it as the other boys “messing around.” Despite this, the filmmakers deem some of the physical abuse Alex endures on the bus–sometimes he’s jabbed with pencils– to be too dangerous to ignore and bring the footage Alex’s parents.
When I was in elementary school the bus was rowdy to a point. If it reached critical volume, our iron lady driver hollered us into quiet submission. The bus was definitely ruled over by a supervising adult. So why does a film director need to intervene? Hirsch literally captures physical abuse of Alex in the same frame as a young driver nonchalantly glancing into her rear view mirror. When shown the footage, a principal assures his infuriated parents that when she rode that bus route the children were “as good as gold.” Of course they were. This is just one of several moments Hirsch captures of school staff being shockingly out of touch. When seeing this film in theaters, expect your audience to get vocal, mine certainly did.
If there’s one mystery to this film, it might be Hirsch’s choice to omit exploring the bullies themselves. Especially bullies who are so bold as to continue to lash out despite the presumed knowledge that they’re being filmed (only one boy’s face is blurred out in the footage of Alex being threatened). Also surprising is lack of a look at cyber bullying which has really expanded the borders of torment from the school yards right into targets’ homes in recent years.
Finally, adding to the outrage the film can often inspire is the recent controversy that has sprung up around the MPAA’s ruling to brand this movie with an R-rating for language. Children swear. They do it to emulate their friends, their role models, and yes, the characters in films they’re technically not supposed to even have access to (but who are we kidding?). The subjects who swear in “Bully” are none of these things, so that the MPAA is in effect stopping this doc from reaching its intended audience for probably less than $2 worth in the swear jar is ridiculous. Kudos for the Weinstein company going ahead unrated and hopefully theater chains will let students see it. If not, one can only hope teachers will have the good sense to bring the DVDs into their classrooms regardless.