Bully (2011)


Sticks and Stones…

Director: Lee Hirsch

I have to admit that I had been looking forward to seeing Bully for months.  My interest began with the kerfuffle over the rating.  It was originally given an R rating because of some of the language used.  But the Weinstein brothers wanted the film to be shown to middle school aged kids and an R rating would have made that impossible.  They argued that the language was integral to portraying the subject matter.  I agreed.  Eventually, the film was given a PG-13 – I have no idea how.  All I know is that it took forever to be released on Netflix.  Controversy + Wait = Unrealistic Expectations.

Bully is a documentary about…bullying.  Specifically, bullying in middle schools and high schools.  The filmmakers profiled a number of kids, through interviews with children and parents and footage of bullying and school administrators dealing with bullying incidents.  The youngest of the children was 12, the eldest, 17.  Each child was the victim of bullying at school or on the school bus.  The filmmakers were not a part of the project – they are neither seen nor heard.  We only see the kids or adults talking or the footage taken by the crew (some of it covertly).

Those are the basics – it’s a very straight forward documentary portrayal of the effects of physical and emotional bullying on teenagers.  While there is definitely an agenda (bullying is bad), the film itself is a pretty random collection of bits and pieces of bullied kids’ lives.  The child who receives the most air time is still in middle school.  He is awkward and socially inept, making him a ripe target for the bullies at his school.  He doesn’t have any friends and doesn’t talk very much about what’s happening with his parents.  He has a bunch of siblings and a younger sister in particular that is blunt (but not with real malice) about how the other kids do not like her brother because he’s “weird” or “creepy”.  She doesn’t say this to the crew, she says it to him.  He knows he doesn’t fit in.  It is his case in which the crew films actual incidents of bullying on the school bus – bad enough that they fear for his safety and turn the footage over to his parents and the school.  We then get to see the reaction of the adults.

Of the other kids profiled, one is openly gay and 2 have committed suicide as a result of being bullied.  Their stories are not as fully explored.  The lesbian girl has some interesting insights and we hear from the grieving parents of the other two children – a truly heartbreaking sight.  Not explored are the stories of any of the bullies.  We see them and hear them but they aren’t interviewed and neither are their families.

These stories are tragic, frightening and sometimes make you fear for the future of the human race.  Sadly, they also manage to somehow drag and the film itself is dry and boring.  How that can be is a mystery – these are very emotional stories.  But the presentation is so spare that they have little more impact than a piece on the local news.   Maybe even less as it drags on and on, switching from a little bit of one story to a little bit of another and back again.  The movie lacks cohesion as much as it lacks emotion.  It isn’t the fault of the participants – the parents talking about their kids just about broke my heart – it’s the fault of the filmmakers.  Their desire to maintain distance from their subject just sucked it all dry.

I can see wanting to show this film to kids – letting them know what bullying does to the victims, their families and the environment in which it takes place.  But there is no discussion of why it happens or how the system is failing in preventing or stopping it.  School administrators are shown as ineffectual if not uncaring, but there is no better approach offered.  We see parents blame the schools (and with good reason – some of them are grieving horrible losses) but the schools are not there to discuss the issue and the filmmakers do not present any teachers, administrators or experts on the topic to address the root of the behavior or offer suggestions to schools, parents or even kids who are being bullied.  The viewer is left without hope that a child being bullied can be effectively helped.  I don’t think that depression and resignation were the desired effects of the film.  The presentation of a series of rallies at the end at which groups of kids vow to fight bullying is too little, too late.  Everyone knows that talk is cheap.  I don’t believe that they couldn’t find a single school representative or teacher to talk about bullying – it’s a fatal flaw that leaves the whole film aimless and feeling almost exploitative of these kids and families.

Ultimately, Bully fails.  It fails as an examination of a complex, frightening issue.  It fails as a tool to stimulate discussion.  It fails to really impress upon the viewer the gravity of the situation for bullying victims because the presentation is so bland and lacking in both cohesion and connection with the audience.  It fails to offer hope or viable strategies or solutions for victims, families or schools dealing with the problem.  The only place it succeeds is in perhaps opening a few eyes to the type of bullying that exists – but I suspect those eyes are few.  Anyone interested in seeing the movie already knows everything presented.   I’m sorely disappointed.  Directors Lee Hirsch took a highly volatile topic with the potential to make a real difference in the lives of a lot of kids and wasted the opportunity by creating too much distance between the situation and the audience.  The primary victim portrayed is so open and complex that he manages to make himself slightly more emotionally available to the viewer, despite the efforts of the filmmakers to isolate and distance him, earning the movie a second star that the filmmakers themselves don’t deserve.  2 stars out of 5.  Not recommended.

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