Movie Review: BULLY

“Bully,” the headline-grabbing new documentary from Lee Hirsch, examines the lives of five small-town kids and their parents. Kelby, a lesbian, Alex, a mildly autistic boy, Ja’Meya, an African-American girl, and two boys named Tyler (one Ty, for short), who each tragically took their own lives after they just couldn’t take the taunting and physical abuse any more.

For a movie about such a complicated and important issue, “Bully” spends most of its time on the surface, following the kids and teachers as they hopelessly stumble their way through the school year. There are some shocking moments of on-screen violence, but even more incredible is one Sioux City, Iowa, administrator’s reaction to it. She actually tries to force a kid to face his tormentor with a handshake, and wags her finger at him for not making nice with the bully that tried to choke, stab, and punch him in the face. “Tell me how to fix this,” she sighs to the camera in desperation, “I don’t have any type of magic.”
In another instance, young Kelby relates how even the teachers in her small Oklahoma town tacitly condoned the taunts she received, directed at her sexuality. Though she vows to fight, by the end of the film, her parents have pulled her from school, and they’ve made plans to move to the city, a more accepting environment.

The parents of the suicide victims, Tyler and Ty, each form advocacy groups in their sons’ names, but there is little action for viewers to model, save for organizing a town hall meeting or a candlelight vigil. And in what is the film’s most chilling moment, 12-year-old Alex, who has endured pencil stabbings, shoving, kicking, verbal abuse, and having his head sat on, admits to the filmmakers, “[The bullies] push me so far, that I want to become the bully.”

Is that how this happens? Are we in a vicious cycle? None of the bullies really gets any on camera interview time, presumably because they’re already media-savvy enough to know when to plead the fifth. Are their parents to blame? It’s tough to say, since none of them appear in the film. I suppose no parent of a bully wants to be interviewed on camera, either. The only parents we hear from are the ones whose children’s stories are being followed by Hirsch.

Bullying requires much more study and action than this documentary is willing to give to the subject. “Bully” is at its best when its young subjects are addressing the camera, likely telling the filmmakers things they’ve never shared with their own parents. But “Bully” rarely goes beyond that. Its goal is to open parents’ eyes, and open a dialogue. I suspect it would be a good film for parents to watch with their middle schoolers and high schoolers. Moms and Dads would be wise to listen carefully to their child’s reaction.

I can’t really recommend this film for a general audience, though. “Bully” is perfectly ordinary in its structure. But its very existence is welcomed, and leads me to suggest that if you want to know more, visit the film’s website, www.thebullyproject.com, to learn about resources for taking action.

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