I was a victim of bullying. Shocking I know that a nerd like myself was the target for bullying with my glasses, portly disposition and general intelligence level above those that I attended school with. It stings being bullied and teased in school for no other reason than to be the target of some ridicule so others can feel good about themselves. I take comfort in the fact that my life has turned out immensely better than theirs, with a career (currently in between jobs) and not currently siring several children and working for slightly above minimum wage. Take that fuckers!
Anyways, now that I have openly vented about my past, bullying is still some morbid national past time that happens even decades after I exited the education system. We see it in the news about teens killing themselves from incessant bullying and the backlash of violence from those that just can’t take it anymore. Everyone knows why but they can never seem to get to the heart of the issue. Young kids deciding that the teasing and bullying becomes almost too much for them and end of taking their lives or those around them. It’s a tragedy that has to be addressed and it hopefully a documentary like Bully will bring to light the issues of bullying in schools in the most direct way possible.
Director Lee Hirsch brings together the stories of several young kids from the across the country and follows them as they go through the routine of being kids in school. Unfortunately for these kids, bullying and violence to them is a part of their daily lives. From Alex, a 14 year old kid from Iowa, is incessantly teased and even beaten on the school bus. He is afraid to tell his parents what is really happening and even seems to defend the bullies out of a misguided notion that physical interaction makes them his friends, rationalizing the violence in his own way. Another kid, Kelby from Oklahoma is a 16 year old girl who recently came out as a lesbian to her parents. Coming from a small town in Oklahoma, the religious leaning town has shunned the family and school officials turn a blind eye to the harassment that Kelby receives. Attempting suicide, no one to turn to and no hope in sight makes Kelby’s journey in life all the more difficult. One last child named Ja’meya, age 14, decide to take a gun on a bus full of her classmates and threaten them. She is shown in a juvenile detention center serving a harsh sentence for lashing out.
While the documentary is a focus on the victims being children, Hirsch managed to shift the gaze of the lens to those of the parents of two teens who unfortunately couldn’t take being bullied any longer. David and Tina Long experienced the loss of their 17 year old child who hung himself after officials wouldn’t take action and the bullying increased. David and Tina are furious that the people they entrust to teach and protect their children at their school didn’t do anything to solve the problem. Kirk and Laura Smalley also share a similar pain as their 11 year old son killed himself as a result of bullying. Demanding action being taken and not sitting by the sidelines while the schools do nothing, they take action by forming the Stand for the Silent movement. A goal in which they hope teens will stand up to bullying and speak for those that can’t do it.
The documentary was one of the most powerful films that I witnessed at the True False Fest in March. When the first five minutes of the film has a considerable number of audience members openly sobbing, you truly have a powerful film that showcases the effects of bullying. Hearth rending stories of anguish from the parents who lost their child because of bullying and faces of innocent children who are bullied because they look different or socially awkward or just picked out of the group of kids for being weak. Hirsch accomplished two things with his documentary that makes it an effective piece. The first portion of the film is establishing bullying and showing the effects that it has on those that are bullied. From teens being physically accosted to school officials shrugging off what happens during the school days, it is a means to get you to care and to be involved. The stories pull at the heartstrings and give you a face to associate with the bullying epidemic. Let me say this, it is an epidemic. Hirsch throws in several staggering statistics that are eye opening as they terrifying. An estimated 13 millions kids will be bullied this year is outrageous and infuriating, but the film shows why this will happen. From administrators using the old standby excuse of boys will be boys and bullying is a part of life and builds character, it shows a stark disconnect of those that are in charge of protecting of our children and lack of involvement that they truly have. In some cases the bullies are victims and the victims are made to apologize and make up with their attackers. Parents come to the defense and given platitudes instead of action.
While the first section sets up the issue, the second half of the documentary promotes action and response. Too long have those that have been bullied remain silent. The Smalley Family decide that enough is enough and through the power of social media and connecting with kids, were they able to start a movement that gives a voice to the voiceless. It aims to get parents involved with their kids lives and hold those teachers and school officials accountable for what happens. The aim of documentary is to get a message across rather than just portraying bullying. We know what it is and what happens, but there has to be some context and a meaning to it all. Hirsch was able to give us a movement to get behind, but there are some areas that needed to be explored.
The issues I have with the documentary is the lack of analysis into bullying. Kids are bullied for numerous reasons, appearance, sexual identification, or race, but there is nothing that ties in the social issues of violence and accountability to the film. It shows us the horrors of bullying, but it doesn’t really dive into why it happens or where it stems from. Could it be from the family life at home that causes some kids to target others for their violence? Is it our violent nature in America that leads teens to emulate and act out? Maybe is it the lack of oversight and general dismissal of teens being teens in school? Too many questions are left unanswered but it is a difficult topic to understand and grasp. Bully doesn’t really answering many of them, but it’s aim is to get people involved with the movement and putting a face to bullying.
The biggest controversy that this film faces is the current ratings battle that the Weinstein Company is having with the MPAA. Currently, Bully is rated R for some violence and foul language (which is very little), but a film like this is relatively tame compared to the violence that passes in PG-13 films these days. It is this weird dichotomy and the a telling symptom of our society when swear words are more egregious than seeing someone getting shot in the head. Bully is a film that must be seen, not just by parents, but by teens. They are the ones that are the bullied or bullies and this does more to show what their action can do to people.
Overall, the showing at True False Fest was one of the most moving films of the fest and the entire auditorium stood up and cheered for the director and the subjects of the film that were at the festival. Seeing their struggles on screen moved the audience more than a movie could ever do and hearing how their lives have changed and improved put a smile on our faces and made us have hope that things will get better. It was an engaging social documentary with a powerful message and unforgettable images of innocence being lost and families coping in a world without answers.
*images via RottenTomatoes