This is a movie that has several powerful, illuminating moments. The surprising thing is, none of them feature bullies. While their behavior is condemned, they aren’t the only bad guys in Lee Hirsch’s film. The people you’re likely to find most infuriating are clueless parents, law-enforcement officials and school administrators.
Bully tells the stories of five children in four states, all in the rural Bible Belt (no explanation is offered for this choice). All five experienced sustained emotional, verbal and physical harassment at the hands of their peers. Two committed suicide before Hirsch’s cameras began rolling.
Sixteen-year-old Kelby describes what happens when you come out in Tuttle, Okla. Longtime friends shunned her family. Classmates rearranged their desks to ostracize her. A van filled with jocks ran her down. In Yazoo County, Miss., a 14-year-old black girl named Ja’Meya sits in a juvenile detention center waiting to learn her fate after she snapped and pointed her mother’s gun at tormentors.
Then there’s Alex, a Sioux City, Iowa, 14-year-old who gets the most screen time and gives the chilling impression of nearing the end of his rope. His story is the heart of the documentary, not least because Hirsch was able to capture people screwing with him on film. This is sad, disturbing stuff. The saddest part is that some of it was shot in Alex’s home.
Perhaps as a result of his premature birth, Alex doesn’t look, walk or talk like the other kids. He’s called “fish face” and is so accustomed to abuse on the school bus that he’s convinced himself his classmates are “just messing around.” “If not for them, what friends do I have?” he asks his mother when she belatedly begins to acknowledge something’s wrong.
More troubling than her denial is Alex’s father’s growing frustration with Alex’s failure to stick up for himself. In one wrenching scene, he reprimands the boy for permitting his own mistreatment. You wonder how much more lackadaisical the parents’ responses might have been without the presence of a movie crew in their home.
These are blazing beacons of intelligence and compassion, however, compared with the pinheads running the schools these children attend. When family and friends of a victim who committed suicide hold a town hall meeting to shed light on the issue, not a single school official bothers to show up. Among those flagrantly taunting Kelby on a regular basis, we learn, was one of her teachers. The worst is the assistant principal at Alex’s school. By the end of the film, you want to hop on a plane and wring her neck.
Early on, we watch her mishandle a bullying incident. As kids file in from the playground, she takes aside two boys, one of whom has just been harassing the other, and orders them to resolve the conflict by shaking hands. The bully is only too glad to get off so easily. His target is incredulous and refuses. The administrator promptly excuses the perpetrator and admonishes his victim that refusing to shake hands is every bit as hurtful as what his tormentor has done.
Lest we chalk up her insipidness to a bad day, the director takes us into the assistant principal’s office when Alex’s parents pay a visit to discuss footage of their son being terrorized on the school bus. The administrator pooh-poohs their concerns, assuring them the bus is “good as gold,” and proceeds to show them photos of her new grandchild.
Despite such revelatory moments, Bully isn’t a particularly well-made film. It’s manipulative and shamelessly sentimental in places and drags in others. Many viewers will wish it offered more in the way of analysis. In the end, though, the documentary isn’t about facts or figures, but feelings. Hirsch wants to make you angry, to raise your blood pressure as a first step toward raising your consciousness. While he doesn’t make great cinema, there’s no doubt he makes his point.
* Running time: 98 min.
* Rated: PG-13