Director: Lee Hirsch
MPAA Rating: (for intense thematic material, disturbing content, and some strong language - all involving kids)
Running Time: 1:34
Release Date: 3/30/12 (limited); 4/13/12 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | April 12, 2012
The national spotlight has been shone upon the topic of bullying in schools after a string of teen and young adult suicides made headlines. The only "crime" these kids committed was to be different.
We instinctually want to and do empathize with the victims of bullying and sympathize with the parents who have lost kids for no rational reason. Bully tells their story and how, after having had enough of a society and culture that simply wants to sweep the entire thing under the carpet, they try in their own small and eventually widespread ways to deal with the issue of bullying. It might be as simple as finally telling one's parents or teacher that they are having trouble with classmates at school (or letting the film crew do it) or as large as establishing a national organization and holding a rally.
At the start, their voices are frightened and uncertain—filled with pain and anxiety. A trip on the school bus is a most terrible prospect for a 12-year-old boy who has the misfortune to be going through the awkward stage of adolescent development. In response to calling an older boy his "buddy," the other kid threatens to bring a knife with him the next day (It's a wonder, honestly, that director Lee Hirsch and his crew, willing to report activity they see over the course of filming to school administrators and the boy's parents, wait so long to do so). Alex likes school but wonders if it's worth the effort.
A school bus plays another major role in the life of another young girl. One day she had enough of the continual torture (It's never revealed what kids said to her to bring her to this point) and brought a gun with her to the school bus. Now Ja'Meya is sitting in a juvenile prison and waiting to hear if she'll be charged with multiple counts of felony kidnapping. The local Sheriff reminds us that no amount or content of bullying justifies someone threatening her classmates with a gun. He's right, of course, but after hearing that older kid on Alex' bus make a threat of violence, we have to wonder if anything similar happened on Ja'Meya's rides to school in the past.
Kelby doesn't really have a school anymore. She announced she was a lesbian to her parents. They were raised and believed that to be a sin—not so much anymore. The entire family unit is now seen as a band of outcasts in their small community in the Bible Belt; Kelby's teacher separates her students into three groups: boys, girls, and Kelby. She wants to make a difference.
Finally, there are two pairs of parents whose sons committed suicide after prolonged verbal and physical abuse at school. They've become part of a group of concerned parents and students who work to bring the subject of bullying to a greater audience.
Many questions arise from their fight and from the fact that Hirsch remains completely silent. The goal is clear (to stop bullying), but what is the proposed way to go about this? Does one start regulating an unfortunate and sometimes terrible behavior that was around when I was a kid, when my parents were kids, when their parents would be kids, etc., etc.? Where does one start to do so? Where will that lead?
If these questions have crossed Hirsch's mind, they do not have an impact on the movie. Like so many issue-focused documentaries, it's the problem, not the solution, that matters. Another gap is in the wholly one-sided nature of the account. Surely there is room to examine from where these bullies come. One can only imagine a household where this sort of behavior is overlooked or possibly encouraged. Hirsch could have done well to delve deeper.
The answer, it seems from the limited view the movie offers, is stricter guidelines for and training aimed at teachers to help those who are bullied, for faculty and school administration to properly discipline the bullies, and for schools to hire administrators who actually care about their students' lives instead of ones, like a certain assistant principal on display here, who only pretend to care when parents show up in their office—or when the camera is turned on them. A most infuriating moment comes when this assistant principal insists that a kid is as bad as his tormentor when he refuses to shake the bully's hand.
It only goes to show how complex and far from black-and-white this whole issue is. There's room for debate, and Bully, a well-intentioned but ultimately shallow exploration of an age-old dilemma, doesn't seem to want to engage in it.
Note: The version of Bully I saw would have earned an R rating from the MPAA. From reports I've read, to obtain a PG-13 rating a few instances of swearing have been bleeped out. The logic of the MPAA ratings board is, of course, absurd: Three instances of a certain word would have no more of a damaging effect on kids aged 13 and up than four or one for that matter (After all, the swearing in the movie comes from kids, some under the age of 13). Now teenagers will be able to see the movie on their own without parental accompaniment.The irony is that one of the movie's primary arguments is that parents should be more aware of and involved in what happens in their children's lives. The lesser rating means, in theory, that some parents might miss the message. While I do not think Bully is a successful examination of this issue, the movie definitely raises plenty of points for parents to discuss with their children and vice versa. For once—while I still believe the MPAA's ratings process needs serious reevaluation—they may have unintentionally stumbled upon the appropriate rating the first time.
Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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