A film review by Craig J. Koban May 8, 2012

RANK:  #8

BULLY jjjj

2012, PG-13, 106 mins.


A documentary directed by Lee Hirsch 

Lee 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 kids.”  

We have 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.  

The 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. 

Hirsch 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. 

There 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.



One of 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. 

Finally, 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. 

There 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. 

What 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 prerogative. 

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.

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