A film review by Craig J. Koban May 8, 2012
2012, PG-13, 106 mins.
2012, PG-13, 106 mins.
A documentary directed by Lee Hirsch
Hirsch’s intoxicating, vexing, heart-breaking, and sensitively rendered
new documentary BULLY tackles a social issue that we all are abundantly
familiar with, but have perhaps never been so intimately entrenched in.
Over 10 million American children and adolescents are bullied –
physically and verbally – every year and an appalling number of them are
taking their own lives as a result.
What’s perhaps even more damning is the fact that school
teachers, administrators, law enforcement officials, and some parents in
general either have no idea how rampant this epidemic is in the school
system or, worse yet, they just nonchalantly attribute it to “kids being
all, in some form or another, heard about school bullying, but
Hirsch’s documentary shows it happening and the endlessly damaging
psychological burden it places on defenseless children.
Far too often, bullying becomes a fringe statistic on the evening
news, but this film personalizes it and puts a face to a deplorable social
ill. Hirsch himself was
bullied as a child and it is his mission, I suppose, to bring to the
forefront the hidden pains of ostracized children to the forefront so that
people can more readily empathize with them.
BULLY has been criticized for not focusing much – if at all –
on the bullying perpetrators or their families, but those critics miss the
point. BULLY is all about the
victims and provoking and engaging viewers to become advocates for change.
In many ways, it’s not just children that need to change, but
parents, school personnel, and society as a whole.
film offers no answers to this problem.
How could it? Bullying
is not a black and white calamity with simplistic solutions.
At times, the doc proposes a theme that bullying has become so
widespread and pervasive in our culture that there are no immediate
answers. Hirsch understands
all of this (politicizing the issue would have been a miscalculation);
instead, his film is all about being a heartfelt testimonial and, deep
down, a cry for help and understanding.
The images and moments contained within the film are nearly
unfathomably shocking and depressing to witness.
Bullies are insecure cowards at best; they always pick on easy and
susceptible targets. The
bullied kids are the real brave souls for enduring the intolerable day in
and day out.
follows separate stories of several children – and their families - in
rural and suburban communities like Mississippi, Oklahoma, Texas, and
Georgia respectively during the 2009-2010 educational year.
One deeply saddening vignette deals with Murray County’s Tyler, a
17-year-old Georgian that was bullied so severely and persistently for
much of his life that he hung himself.
His parents, Kirk and Laura, courageously bolster up the
courage to reveal their son’s shocking tale that serves to bookend the
overall film and establish an early segue point to the film’s other
subjects and their unique stories.
is Kelby, a 16-year-old that has inconveniently come out of the closet in
the heart of the Bible belt, Tuttle, Oklahoma.
She is a bright, cheerful, and sincere young woman that has a very
tight circle of friends. Yet, everyone else around her and her very supportive
friend/family network has spat on her “sinful” lifestyle choice to
the point where people in and out of school that were once the closet of confidants
now hurtle homophobic taunts and hostile threats
her way. More infuriating to
Kelby and her parents is that most of her former friends that now just silently
ignore her. Kelby’s story
is unique for shedding light on how bullying takes so many divergent
forms: some kids are picked on because of how meager they look, but other
times it's manifested from religious and ethnic prejudices.
Her tale also highlights how bullying has deeply affected her
family; they suffer alongside her. Kelby's father in particular explains how his daughter’s
homosexuality has compelled him to drastically revaluate himself as a
person so that he could change for the better and become a finer role
model for his children. This guy is a real man.
the more polarizing subjects is Ja’Meya Jackson from Mississippi, who
was teased, tormented, and traumatized so much on her school bus that she
finally had enough and took a loaded handgun on one trip to school.
She never pulled the trigger and no one was injured, but in the
media's mind she
quickly became a vilified, deranged and dangerous youth criminal.
Some lawmen - who dealt with her case - are interviewed and in the
process reveal how very little consideration they have for the particulars
of her situation. Make
no mistake, no one – child or adult – should threaten anyone
with a firearm, but the lack of willingness by the police to look at the
root cause of Ja’Meya’s actions are disturbing in their own right.
there is 12-year-old Alex, a sweet-tempered, intelligent, and
happy-go-lucky Iowan kid that was born prematurely (at just 26 weeks) and
whose whole life since birth seems to be a struggle to survive.
He becomes a focal point of BULLY as Hirsch shows some daily
footage of his interactions with his school peers that will get just about
any viewers’ blood boiling. He’s
constantly berated with venomous name-calling insults from kids like “bitch” and
“faggot” and, when that’s not occurring, he’s being thrust into
lockers, stabbed with pens, and punched.
Watching poor Alex shrug off everything that is thrown at him is
incessantly demoralizing. Like
many victims, he never blames the perpetrators.
“It’s not that bad,” he tells his mother at one point.
How sad. How very, very sad.
are other moments in BULLY that made me ill.
After Alex is threatened by another classmate on a school bus
(“I’ll break your Adam’s apple” and “I will fuckin’ end
you”) his parents decide – after viewing the footage – to see the
assistant school principal, Kim Lockwood.
They might as well have talked to a brick wall.
Lockwood passively and indifferently dismisses Alex’s troubles as
routine “boys will be boys” occurrences and then incredulously states
that her students are “as good as gold” while on the bus.
Earlier in the film she pulls two kids off of the recess
playground, a bully and his prey, and asks them to shake hands, as if that
would forever solve the issue. Of
course, the bully sticks out his hand first, displaying false humility and
smug kindness. The
disheartened and teary-eyed bullied boy refuses because he knows the bully
is not being sincere about it, after which Lockwood scolds the victim for
being anti-social. Again,
it’s enough to make you want to vomit.
don’t school officials get? Seriously? Even
after kids kill themselves spokespeople from various school boards
sheepishly explain that bullying was not a factor, despite all evidence to
the contrary. Sigh.
To say that this is infuriating is an understatement.
Far, far too many bullied victims plead their cases to their
teachers with little to no luck. When that doesn’t work their parents get the police
involved, but legal loopholes - and maybe too much lazy complacency - always
seems to tie their hands.
Most tragic is how so many bullied kids simply don’t tell anyone
about their troubles because they are either embarrassed or have been emotionally bludgeoned to
the point where they think that no amount of speaking out will help them.
After seeing BULLY and witnessing Alex’s despair, I can see their
There are so few films that are important and morally driven works. BULLY is one of them. I rarely engage in hyperbolic declarations in reviews such as “everyone needs to see this film,” but I truly believe that everyone – especially young kids, school officials, and parents – needs to see BULLY. The documentary is an unforgettable portal into how good and honorable kids are beaten down by pointless detestation and wicked prejudice. I came out of the film feeling like I wanted to hug these young souls while, at the same time, scream at all the adult figures around them that allow such a sickening trend of small-mindedness about such cruelty to continue to go unchecked. Bullying is an issue that’s out of control. Again, there are no easy resolutions. Perhaps seeing this film and reflecting on it is a start.
I did not comment in my review on the much-purported MPAA ratings controversy surrounding BULLY’s release, seeing as it has been discussed over and over again in the press this year. What’s important to note, though, is that the MPAA gave the film an initial R-rating, which would have restricted children from seeing it. Let me be blunt: BULLY has no nudity, no sexual content, no gory violence, but it does have a few usages of the word “fuck”. The MPAA, after much pressure, rescinded the rating down to a more audience-friendly PG-13, ensuring that enough people will see it. Meanwhile, the Canada provincial ratings boards in Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, and my home province of Saskatchewan gave the film a PG with plainly stated warnings about “some coarse language.” The MPAA could learn a lot from us in the Great White North.