With many tragic bullying-related suicides spotlighted in the news in recent years, bullying couldn't be more of a hot button topic today. Along comes the documentary Bully to shine a light on the issue only to see the publicity surrounding the film reaching epic proportions due the outrage of the Motion Picture Association of America give it an R-rating because of the six uses of the word "fuck" in the film.
The reality is, three of those fucks are used quickly in succession 11 minutes in to the film on a bus by an older boy to a younger student named Alex. And the audio is unclear enough that the filmmaker had to use subtitles to make sure it is heard correctly. Many PG-13 films are worse than that.
Controversy aside, the film is powerful enough from the point of view that it touches a very important social issue that has grown to the point where it's also an educational one and well as a community one. From that stand-point alone, the film is important if only to spark discussion and bring about awareness.
Bully shows the impact of bullying on three teens -- Alex, a boy who is being verbally and physically abused in middle school, a bullied young girl named Ja'Meya who fights back in a way that lands her in juvenile detention facility and Kelby, a star athlete who became a pariah overnight in her small town when she came out as a lesbian. It also shows two families who've each lost children due to suicide-induced bullying.
Thirty-nine-year-old filmmaker Lee Hirsch, himself a victim of bullying during middle school, chooses not to pepper the film with bullying statistics, or the use of charts and graphs to show how bad the problem is in America. Rather, he goes for less flash, simply following the five families in Sioux City, Iowa, and letting each of their stories speak for themselves. There are no experts, no psychologists touting long-term effects, just real people in real situations -- the Long family, whose son was 17 when he killed himself, wants accountability from the school that did not help their son when he was being bullied; the Smalleys launch an anti-bullying organization to honor their 11-year-old son who killed himself; Ja'Meya meant to only scare her tormentors when she brought a gun on the school bus, but now she's charged with multiple felony counts -- one for each child that was on that bus; Alex -- the focal point of the film -- who is pushed to the point where he says: 'I want to become the bully.'
Though it would have been interesting to see more point of views from the actual bullies, or the ineffective adults in authoritative positions, Hirsch did a decent job with the willing participants, all of whom were brave to put themselves out there. A big commendation must go out to the Sioux City school district to allow the cameras in to their school to film the cringe-worthy behavior. Bullying exists everywhere and different cities would have yielded different examples, but Hirsch managed to get diverse enough stories here.
(Unfortunately, he does not delve in to cyberbullying, which has grown to become its own devastating sub-category of bullying which have garnered numerous high profile media play in recent years.)
A big shout out also goes to the parents of the bullies, who, after seeing footage of their children's ghastly behavior towards on a school bus, had to sign release forms allowing their children to be shown on camera. It's nothing to be proud of, but important in the long run if society is to combat the problem. Only one face is blurred in that school bus scene.
What's maddening is that bullying is so common and bystanders tend to do nothing, further empowering the bullies. Some of the bullying in Bully is so brazen, one is convinced it had to have been captured by a hidden camera because no child would ever willingly display such awful behavior for filming. Alas they do and they did. No cameras were secretly rigged. Hirsch was physically there, in full view, manning his own equipment. The bullies had simply gotten away with the behavior for so long without consequences that doing it out in the open didn't phase them one bit. It was as if they felt entitled to do it.
The film also demonstrates the need for the community and the education system to create some sort of system to handle bullying. When Alex's parents go to his school to meet with assistant principal Kim Lockwood to address what happened to him on the bus, Lockwood said she knews that bus, she's ridden that bus route and "those kids are as good as gold."
Clearly there are plenty of antiquated views on bullying that need to change. Bully is a great catalyst to spearhead that change.