I was a hellion when I was a child. Throwing temper tantrums and getting myself into trouble – the kind where it’s difficult to sit after the punishment is inflicted – I was a meanie and cruel. But this was only in kindergarten. It was during the first grade where I had a teacher that set me straight, and she didn’t even have to scare me into it. I only mention this because had I not been set straight, chances are I could have very well been like one of the mean children in Lee Hirsch’s documentary, Bully.
Bullying is a problem that gets little attention unless there is a tragic outcome. All you have to do is mention Columbine and you’ll get a number of pundits wanting to weigh in as if they were trying to decipher some cryptic message with the staff of CSI. It was a tragedy mitigated by two students who were frequently bullied at their high school. You can throw accusations that they were influenced by the types of films they watched or music they listened to, but don’t overlook the act of bullying and its repercussions.
Bully might be considered an eye-opening documentary to all those who have never been victimized in the form of cruel teasing and physical assault by other children. But the real question is if it offers anything new on the subject as a means to better understand the problem.
It’s my belief that Hirsch made the documentary to not be a Cliff’s Notes guide on how to solve the problem but rather to act as a cinematic vessel that will allow parents and kids to cope. Its intended audience is definitely those between the ages of ten and seventeen, and now that the MPAA has been swayed by peer pressure in the form of studio honcho Harvey Weinstein, acting heavyweights Johnny Depp and Meryl Streep – plus dozens of other luminaries – and petitions with thousands of signatures from kids and adults, the intended audience will now have the opportunity to see it as it should have originally been rated in the first place: PG-13.
Instead of turning this into a piece on the Motion Picture Association of America and its relevancy in today’s age of cinema (can someone explain to me the ratings term “thematic elements”?), the organization is indirectly responsible for raising the documentary’s profile. And like the old adage says, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” especially when it makes an arcane ratings board look like a bunch of imbeciles.
The documentary presents five stories interwoven. We begin in Sioux City, Iowa, and follow 12-year-old Alex Libby. A loner called “fishface” by his classmates, his biggest ordeal comes in the form of the bus ride to school. Constantly abused by those sitting around him, Alex has become so accustomed to the daily ritual that he compartmentalizes it telling his parents that it isn’t that bad when asked. It isn’t until Hirsch captures one incident on the bus that a red flag is waved and he turns the footage over to the parents to watch. Mr. and Mrs. Libby, well aware of the ritual abuse, have taken meetings with school officials to snuff out the problem. But the vice principal and her conciliatory tone does little to assuage the issue. She would rather make like an ostrich and keep her head in the sand. Her belief that bullying can be solved with a simple handshake just shows how out-of-touch she is with today’s school environment where the kids are more salacious in their verbal taunts – even taking it viral on sites like Facebook – and propensity towards violence.
Moving to Tuttle, Oklahoma, we encounter Kelby Johnson, a 16-year old lesbian. The resident outcast since coming out of the closet, she turns to her friends and parents for support. In a telling admission, Kelby admits to having been a “cutter” (slang for cutting yourself with a blade to relieve emotional pain). Her parents, who have come to accept their daughter’s lesbianism, made the suggestion that they move to a different town where different lifestyles are accepted; Kelby shoots the idea down admitting that if she leaves they win.
It’s difficult to gauge why Ja’Meya Jackson of Yazoo County, Mississippi, was the subject of bullying. Smart as a whip with trophies galore, she, like Alex, received most of her bullying while confined to a bus going to and from school. On one September morning, having reached her breaking point, Ja’Meya wields her mother’s gun on the bus, terrorizing those who have tormented her. She is later arrested and sent to a juvenile facility where she undergoes psychiatric evaluation. Bullying is not a good enough reason to brandish a firearm the local authorities admit. Their taciturn analysis of the situation fits in line with their unmoved emotions. They probably never had to endure the type of bullying that Ja’Meya faced on a daily basis.
The last two stories involve the families of boys who resorted to suicide to escape bullying. In October 2009, 17-year-old Tyler Long hung himself in his bedroom, leaving his family and siblings to grieve. But they turned that grief into an anti-bullying crusade, as parents David and Tina Long started to stage vigils across America to spread their message. Not long after Tyler’s death, 11-year-old Ty Smalley of Oklahoma committed suicide. After getting no accountability from the school that failed at preventing the abuse, parents Kirk and Laura began Stand for the Silent, an on-line anti-bullying organization.
Lee Hirsch, who acts as his own cinematographer, plays with the focus and the movement of the camera, and ultimately uses a minimum amount of footage on the act of bullying to maximize the stories from those who have been victimized. It’s one thing to be physically imposing over those who are weaker than you, but the psychological impact is far greater. You may want to believe that words don’t hurt, unlike sticks and stones, but the truth is that they have far reaching implications.
The subjects of Bully are made out to be thoughtful and intelligent. Alex bares resemblance to Corey Haim in the film Lucas, except that he’s not very outgoing when it comes to making friends or acquaintances. His story, along with Kelby’s and Ja’Meya’s are good, but the most poignant moments are those in which the parents speak of their deceased sons and look to a resolution. The most telling image is seeing Ty Smalley’s best friend, the smallest of six pallbearers, carrying his casket to the graveyard plot.
Bully is definitely a film that will have people talking. Thinking back to some of the situations of the documentary, like how the vice principal politics the parents of Alex as assurance that the problem will be stopped. This resulted in eye rolls and a few outbursts from the screening audience. The documentary is meant to close the gap between parent and child, acknowledging the fact that both generations have been victimized at some point. And for those that have never experienced bullying, Hirsch’s first-hand account will allow you to walk in the shoes of a middle- or high-schooler and visually experience the problem.
The resulting act of bullying looks to end one of three ways. You can take the abuse, fight back or get to a point where you feel that suicide is you’re only way out. Bully offers a fourth avenue: discussion. Communication is key. We have gone from a society that once ate dinner as a family around a table, discussing the ups and downs of the day, to a family that dines in front of a television without much discussion of daily events. Factor in the schools that do little to impede the problem (It’s just kids being kids. Don’t you remember when we were that age?), and you see the disconnect. Parents aren’t free of blame, as discipline in the household has clearly waned with each successive generation.
Far too often we want to pass the buck and say that bullying is only an issue to those directly affected. Nobody wants to intervene to stop a problem that is systemic. Instead of waiting for Superman, hopefully those teachers and administrators that keep their head above sand will see Bully for what it is: A teaching tool on how to deal and cope with bullying. If not, we may bare witness to more Columbines or teens taking their own lives as a means to stop the abuse.
Director: Lee Hirsch Writer: Lee Hirsch and Cynthia Lowen Notable Cast: Alex Libby, Kelby Johnson, Ja’Meya Jackson, David and Tina Long, Kirk and Laura Smalley
Travis Leamons is one of the Inside Pulse Originals and currently holds the position of Managing Editor at Inside Pulse Movies. He's told that the position is his until he's dead or if "The Boss" can find somebody better. I expect the best and I give the best. Here's the beer. Here's the entertainment. Now have fun. That's an order!