Film Review: “Bully”

by Jason LeRoy on April 13, 2012

Documentary subject Alex in BULLY

written by: Lee Hirsch and Cynthia Lowen

directed by: Lee Hirsch

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for intense thematic material, disturbing content, and some strong language – all involving kids

Bully is an undeniably powerful yet unfortunately one-note documentary about the effects of bullying. Its benefits from zeitgeisty timing, with Dan Savage’s It Gets Better Project recently casting the biggest spotlight on gay teen suicide in history. However, this is not a film about gay teen suicide. Of all the kids it profiles, only one (a swaggering and seemingly indomitable lesbian named Kelby) is identified as gay. The rest of the kids fall into that much broader and less specific category of offbeat outsiders or just plain weirdos (such as Alex, pictured above, who has become the unofficial poster child of the film). If director Lee Hirsch had focused on the epidemic of gay teen suicide, perhaps he could have made a more targeted and effective documentary. But by aiming to tackle bullying in a much broader sense, and by doing so entirely through personal testimonies about the effects of bullying, Hirsch has made a film without much use other than in the classroom.

The film’s distributor, The Weinstein Company, made Bully into a media lightning rod by taking their clash with the MPAA, who originally gave it an R-rating for its strong language, and using it to turn the film into a cause célèbre. TWC eventually trimmed one scene to receive a PG-13, while still retaining more “fuck”s than most PG-13 films are allotted (don’t even get me started on the absurd idea that the public schoolchildren of America are possessed of sanctified virgin ears that can’t bear to be sullied with any so-called “strong language” lest they be robbed of their purity and condemned to hell). The PG-13 should encourage the screening of Bully in junior high classrooms, where it will hopefully have the power to change a few hearts with its gut-wrenching footage of parents grieving the suicides of their children, while also humanizing Alex-types to the classmates who view them as less than human.

Beyond the classroom, I can’t really imagine what benefit Bully could have. It contains not a single academic interview to shed light on why kids bully, why bullying victims take the abuse, or how to address these problems. It also lacks any statistics or figures, which while frequently questionable, are still very much reassuring documentary staples. There is the usual non-productive finger-pointing between parents and schools over who should take the responsibility; the only takeaway a parent could yield from this film is to have a documentary crew follow their child to school if they want to know how bad it really gets. As for educators, the film does feature a Pontius Pilate-style assistant principal who is so egregiously bad at her job that she nearly sounds scripted. In one particularly shocking moment, she admonishes a bullying victim that he’s as bad as his bully for not accepting the bully’s clearly disingenuous apology. But what to take from this? “Educators: if you’re really shitty at your job, try doing it off-camera.”

Maybe this was egotistical of me, but as someone who was bullied as a gay teen in junior high and high school, I expected to see some of my own experiences reflected in Bully. Some of the questions I’ve had since the rash of gay teen suicides caught our nation’s attention are: why? Why are so many gay kids killing themselves? Is it somehow worse now? They have Glee and Lady Gaga! All we had was Melissa Etheridge and whoever was gay on The Real World that season! And are more gay teens actually committing suicide, or is it just being reported more now than it used to be? I’ve gathered that the suffocating and inescapable embrace of social media has something to do with this, and expected that Bully would touch on that. But it doesn’t. Social media is hardly even mentioned, which seems like quite an oversight. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that all of Bully‘s stories take place in the Bible Belt, effectively shooting itself in the foot by making a film about bullying in the broadest sense while focusing entirely on one very specific region.

While Bully doesn’t depict my own unpleasant experiences with bullying (nor is it even the best film named Bully; that honor goes to Larry Clark’s harrowing 2001 drama), it did succeed in reminding me that I was far from the only bullying victim, or the only kind of bullying victim, in my high school. Mostly, it reminded me of a classmate of mine who was more of an Alex. I think we all probably had an Alex in our grade: that one really unfortunate kid that, even now, you think about and say, “I mean, he was pretty much asking for it.” The kid you looked at and just thought, “You will be bullied and you have absolutely no choice in this matter.” And, as Alex does, I remember this boy developing a relationship with his bullies like it was some perverse new form of friendship, while his own humanity, his own capacity to refuse to be treated as less than human, receded into his increasingly dissociative psyche. And for forcing me to snap out of my gay martyr complex and reminding me to consider the Alex’s of the world, I must applaud Bully.

Bully opens in San Francisco today.

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