Movie Review - Bully (2012)

Don't be confused with Larry Clark's 2001 film Bully, starring Brad Renfro and Nick Stahl. This documentary comes from Lee Hirsch and follows the lives and even deaths of children in middle and high schools in several different states with his lens focused on the issue of teenage bullying. Hirsch follows them from the beginning of the school year in the fall 2009 to its end in the spring of 2010.

Prior to this film's theatrical release over a month ago, it drew news headlines and a bit of controversy. The Motion Picture Association of America or MPAA deemed the film rating to be "R," while its distributor, The Weinstein Company, wanted a rating of "PG-13." A petition was started to change the rating. Weinstein made some insignificant threats. The reason was to make the movie available to teenagers. After seeing the movie though, it's clear that making it available to teenagers won't make a damn bit of difference.

My logic perhaps is flawed, but bullying isn't a problem for children to see. It's a problem for adults to see. Yes, I understand the argument of self-regulation, an argument that actually comes from both sides, both sides being the school administrators and the parents. The thrust of course is parents urging the administrators to do something about the bullies, but there's one or two harrowing scenes where the parents urge the children themselves to do something, which I thought was clearly wrong.

One of the children followed is Alex, the 12-year-old from Sioux City, Iowa. Of all the children followed. Hirsch's cameras capture footage of Alex actually being bullied, mostly on the school bus. Other kids call him horrible names, including curse words and they hit him repeatedly. Apparently, this has been happening for a while, if not years. The fact that Hirsch is following Alex is proof that bullying is his chief concern.

How Hirsch found him is a wonder, but seeing Alex get beat up on the bus is less painful than seeing Alex have to face his father about it. Alex is called into the kitchen to speak to a man who I assume was his father. His father asks him what happened on the bus and Alex reveals the awful abuse he suffered. The father then asks Alex something to the effect of what he was going to do. Alex's sister is there and his father also asks if his sister were bullied, what was Alex going to do.

The presumption is that Alex should either hit or fight back against these bullies. It was at that point that I got angered and frustrated with the father because what the father didn't get is that, first, violence begets more violence and secondly the moment Alex fights or hits the bullies, he would become liable for suspension or criminal charges. What the father also didn't get in that scene is that Alex is twelve. He shouldn't have to worry about fighting back or defending himself on a school bus. It wasn't about what Alex should or should not do. It's about the adults creating and maintaining a safe environment.

Alex's father and even his mother in another scene almost want to blame the victim. We see administrators who do the same. They blame Alex for the actions of others. Things turn when Hirsch shows the footage of what happened to Alex on that bus. The question is what took Hirsch so long. It's almost immediate that Hirsch's cameras capture bullying against Alex. Yet, it's not until later that Hirsch releases that footage to his parents and administrators. Why? Why did Hirsch wait? I think I know the answer but I reject the objective documentary filmmaking excuse. I've seen it argued, but Hirsch bore witness to Alex's suffering and did nothing. Hirsch is then no better than the administrators who turned a blind eye.

Hirsch does evoke a lot of tearful emotions from his subjects and by the end, we do get a sense of this problem's scope. Sadly, this movie lacks facts. Hirsch doesn't provide much in the way of context. He gives us no numbers and no statistics to help guide us. There's not much here to dissuade us from the notion that all this is nothing more than boys-will-be-boys. For that matter, he does little to show that this is a problem outside the American mid-west or south.

We never see what the bullying situation is like in any place beyond the suburban or rural areas of Iowa, Oklahoma, Mississippi or Georgia. We never see how the bullies are handled in urban areas. Is there more bullying in urban areas? Is there less? Is it different in how it's manifested? We never see the online bullying that's become increasingly prevalent. No mention of the Tyler Clementi case happens, nor the unprecedented court case that followed. The movie is almost too insular. I like the narrow vision when it's appropriate. I like the almost first person nature of it, but it's too narrow. Hirsch really doesn't give us enough.

Besides Alex, another child that's followed is Kelby, the 16-year-old from Tuttle, OK. Kelby came out as a lesbian where she and her family then faced bigotry and discrimination. Despite a heartbreaking testimonial from her family, Hirsch's cameras don't care about her day-to-day. She's absent for a large chunk of the movie. She appears at the end with news that doesn't resonate. It's good that Hirsch brings up the topic of homophobia, but there's no real examination of it here.

The Weinstein Company released another documentary a month before this one called Undefeated, which didn't deal with a grander social problem, so its scale didn't need to be wide. Bully does deal with a grander social problem, yet Hirsch's scale is too small. What's ironic is that Undefeated is about a high school football team and one of the big jocks in it nicknamed "Money" gets bullied briefly. So, it's not just a young, skinny, awkward-looking kid or even a gay kid. Even a huge, popular athlete can get picked on. It's not even at school. There was a movie Griff the Invisible where a handsome yet shy guy gets bullied at work. Bullying isn't limited to any one particular place or person, but Hirsch isn't interested in the big picture.

Two Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for disturbing content and language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 38 mins.


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