'Bully' Documentary Exposes the Criminal Negligence Threatening Kids' Lives

For the past few years, Americans have become hyper-aware of the issue of school bullying, a cause celebre among stars like Lady Gaga and relationship columnist Dan Savage. But even with the prevalence of It Gets Better PSAs—not to mention copious tragic tales of young children driven to suicide constantly in the news—we might not feel the immediacy of how bullying actually feels in the day-to-day. With the perspective of time, even those of us who were brutally bullied as children might not remember the visceral pain of it once we become adults.

Illuminating and reminding us of that pain is what Bully does best. Directed by Amandla documentarian Lee Hirsch, the film follows the lives of several children being bullied in different American cities during the 2009 school year. All of them are incredibly sweet: Alex of Sioux City, Iowa, has a good sense of humor; Kelby of Tuttle, Oklahoma, appears confident and smart despite it all; Ja’Meya of Yazoo County, Mississippi, is shy and mild-mannered. Their dispositions make their tales that much starker, particularly in the case of Alex, who’s shown riding the bus as several older, bigger boys call him names until it escalates to prodding, poking him with pencils, punching and choking him.

It’s a devastating, close-up look at what bullied kids go through—which may encompass physical blows but likely inflicts worse violence upon their self-esteem. Alex takes it all with a smile, sometimes asking why the kids are poking him, but doing nothing to stop it, as though he’s been worn down. Some of the other kids around him laugh, which is infuriating, but most disturbing of all: the bus driver, who would be blind not to see what’s going on, does absolutely nothing, day in and day out. It comes to the point where the filmmakers, seeing the real harm that’s being inflicted upon Alex, show their footage to his parents, who intervene.

At that moment the point has been driven home. We hear from Kelby, a bright, well-adjusted girl who’s been ostracized by her entire community since she came out as a lesbian. We hear from the parents of children who committed suicide, including the parents of Georgia’s Tyler Long, who hung himself at the age of 17 after being bullied; and from the parents of Ty Smalley, who shot himself when he was a heartbreaking 11 years old. Within the stories, a disturbing pattern emerges: though all the parents attempt to stop the bullying by speaking to school officials and in some cases the police, they are consistently met with widespread apathy, and kept at bay by empty promises.

We witness as much in real time when Alex’s parents take a meeting with his middle-school assistant principal, who not only pooh-poohs their concerns, but actually interrupts their meeting to show them a photo of her new granddaughter. It’s a moment of extreme narcissism and you’ll hope she got fired the second this movie was released, but it also illustrates what parents are up against. Even with all the bullying awareness movements happening in the country, there will always be administrators who apparently don’t care enough about the children they supervise to protect them. Potentially they could chalk it up to school overcrowding, to “No Child Left Behind” fall-out, to exhaustion or any number of excuses, but in Bully’s cases, these teachers are working in small towns with small school populations. There is no tangible justification for their behavior. It’s criminal negligence.

There’s been a bit of a brouhaha about Bully’s MPAA rating—which was an R, until the Weinstein Company, unsuccessfully having lobbied for a PG-13, decided to release it without a rating. Watching the film only underscores how conservative and hypocritical the dread MPAA actually is: there is barely any cursing, and though the violence is real, it isn’t even close to the scale of violence in popular teen franchises like Transformers (PG-13) or Twilight (PG-13).

That said, it’s difficult to imagine hordes of schoolage kids wanting to see Bully, particularly if they are presently the target of one. For one, it’s two hours long, essentially a PSA, and with the tales of the kids who committed suicide, frankly isn’t all that uplifting. It functions, again, as a resonant reminder to adults of the true pain that 13 million kids endure each year in the United States, and brings to light the fundamental problem in school structure that allows it to keep happening. Hopefully some teachers, principals and school administrators across the country will see it and aspire to do better than those profiled in the documentary.

Which brings us to one of Bully’s biggest flaws: it portrays the bullying issue in a somewhat narrow light, focusing mostly on young white males in rural, working-class towns. The two girls in the film functioned as double minorities, with Kelby as lesbian and Ja’Meya as African American, which raised some questions about the director’s choices, as bullying in schools is often focused on race (racial attacks account for a full third of bullying) and sexual orientation (nine of 10 LGBT students reports being bullied).

The film doesn't touch on cyberbullying, which seems odd considering the anti-bullying movement was sparked by cyberbullying, and can devote its widespread success to the internet. Though bullying is different among urban, suburban and rural schools, it is prevalent in each environment. Perhaps it was the director’s goal to illuminate rural, working-class schools in particular, in red states—but it didn’t feel like an accurate cross-section, nor did it point out the prevalence of vicious and cruel girl-on-girl bullying, that includes slut-shaming.

In last year’s suicide of 10-year-old Stacy Conner, her mother directly attributes her suicide to bullying that had occurred the day before, in which classmates called her “fat,” “ugly,” and a “slut.” Bully would have been more thorough had it explored these issues deeper. Despite these flaws, Bully is a sad and engrossing film, and is certainly an important entry into the anti-bullying movement across America. Even though it’s depressing, there is a little hope: upon its release, Alex, now a high school freshman, appeared on Anderson Cooper at the end of March. He’s enjoying his new school, he says, and has tons of friends. It gets better, indeed.

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