IT’S TIME TO TAKE A STAND.
It’s hard to watch this documentary with rational eyes because of its emotional power. Many critics rate this film a little lower than I do for different reasons, but there’s not a flaw they’ve found that I can fully agree with. On the contrary, Lee Hirsch’s film achieves its goals of making us care for children who are bullied at school and providing us with answers for how an effective campaign against this “social disease” might be carried out.
We are introduced to a number of people whose lives have changed because of schoolyard bullying. 14-year-old Ja’Maya got so fed up with being mistreated by other kids that she stole her mother’s gun and brought it on a school bus where she threatened to shoot anyone who dared pick on her. Alex, another high school student, has learned to accept the fact that other kids find him weird and will continue to harass him every day on the bus. Kelby, who was brought up in a small town, has to be home-schooled because when she came out of the closet her entire family was shunned by more or less the entire community.
We also meet the parents of Tyler Long and Ty Smalley, a 17-year-old and an 11-year-old who committed suicide after being bullied at school.
Makes us both smile and shed tears
Omitting certain facts about Long’s mental history has become one reason why Bully has received some backlash. Others have called it too manipulative. But the fact of the matter is that even though Hirsch has decided on a certain point of view you are allowed to feel differently. The film offers many opportunities to blame school officials as well as parents; their words and actions are there for you to interpret and judge. In his portrayal of the children, Hirsch makes us both smile and shed tears in his quest to get close to them and present them as human beings worthy of respect rather than constant abuse.
The film is urging us to take action, resulting in a stirring final sequence where Ty Smalley’s parents attend a rally in Oklahoma City where there is much enthusiasm. As a whole, the film illustrates both the difficulty of how to combat bullying in an effective way (no one is ever going to present a fix-all solution) and how at least some progress will be made. It has to start among students, teachers and parents in a joint effort. Everybody is going to have to accept responsibility, start taking the problem seriously and stop passing the bucket. Examples of how this is not done are on painful display in the film, especially in a scene where a teacher wants the bully and the victim to shake hands, as if that will resolve the matter. But judging from how the movie has been received on a grassroot level, the profile of this issue has been raised.
Hirsch’s gentle approach helps, with an almost eerie title sequence set to a women’s choir’s rendition of “Teenage Dirtbag”, and a hand-held camera observing the wide range of emotions on display – anger, sorrow, and more dangerously, a sense of surrender. Of which there are two shades, one in the eyes of teachers, the other in the eyes of a kid who’s gotten used to being abused.
Unlike Hirsch himself, I wasn’t bullied at school. However, I didn’t stand up for those who were and I participated in some of the bad behavior. The playground and school are mankind’s first attempts at creating social bonds with others and it’s often far from a pretty sight. How to guide children through those experiences is still an immensely difficult challenge.
Bully 2012-U.S. 98 min. Color. Produced by Lee Hirsch, Cynthia Lowen. Directed by Lee Hirsch.
Trivia: When the MPAA decided on a R rating for language, a battle ensued with the studio since that would exclude an important target audience, high-school teens. In the end, both sides made concessions and the film received a PG-13 rating.
Last word: “For bullies, many things might trigger their behavior, from how old they are, to where they are, to how they are treated at home. A lot never really understand how hurtful it can be. When they see the film and how much it can impact someone, they can form another view of what might have seemed fun in the moment. ‘Bully’ is about changing hearts and minds, and I hope people come away and have access to being part of that change. So many documentaries present problems that seems so insurmountable, like saving the oceans or ending famine. With ‘Bully’, you can see the problem and then make the decision to be kind.” (Hirsch, Huffington Post)