The day before my screening of Bully, I overheard an AM talk-radio personality -- I don't remember his name, but I believe he's regional -- criticizing the documentary.
Bully received a lot of press over its threatened R-rating because of a few too many F-bombs. (A PG-13 rating allows only one utterance.) The film's director Lee Hirsch and its studio waged a public relations war against the MPAA to get the rating changed to PG-13 so that young teens could see the movie; a compromise was reached with a few of the film's expletives removed.
The battle provided the film some important buzz, good and bad. And as is often the case with controversial films and those who criticize them, the radio host hadn't seen the movie, but that didn't prevent him from articulating his exceedingly negative view of Bully to his audience. He railed against the documentary as overinflating the obvious -- kids being picked on is nothing new -- and its call to action an example of a detrimental (read: liberal) social movement to sanitize life for our children.
If only he had seen Bully before he spoke out.
Bullying is nothing new, he's correct about that. But tolerating it as Darwinian social culture where only the strong survive high school is cruel, especially by a country that prides itself on our evolutionary enlightenment.
Extending his flaccid argument beyond the film, you could apply the same failed reasoning to racism or prejudice against gays or Jews. And to simply whitewash this troubling phenomenon as an inevitability of growing up is missing the greater truth of the film: making someone uncomfortable, causing them pain, tormenting them to point of suicide as their only means of escape from the persecution is inhumane and should never be tolerated. We should expect better of ourselves.
The film uses as its case studies several teenagers who are different than the norm -- by looks, social awkwardness, and sexual orientation -- and they are made to suffer because of it. The ribbing they endure may be mild on-the-playground taunts, or even physically abusive, including stabbings by pencil. In one instance, the altercations on a school bus became so aggressive that Hirsch felt compelled to share what he was seeing with the teen's parents and teachers for fear of the boy's safety.
Bully's most impressive feat is the intimate access to these kinds of moments that Hirsch captures on film. By using a small handheld camera, rather than an intimidating large film crew, Hirsch documents these terrifying moments in the daily struggle of the bullied. Their antagonists, perhaps as a result of growing up in the YouTube culture, appear immune to the presence of a camera -- yet another example of how real life is merging into a nonstop reality show.
Bully sticks to its impassioned story line and offers no surprises, just memorable faces: happy turned sad, then desperate, and finally resigned to the fate that awaits them almost daily when they leave the safety of their home.
Despite its noble intentions, Bully has its share of flaws, among them is the lack of interaction with any of the bullies or their parents. Are we to believe that no one who picked on their classmates had anything interesting to say -- or perhaps they, too, were victims of abuse. Speaking as a parent, if I discovered that my daughter was making life miserable for another student you bet I would take immediate action. I would like to think that many of the parents of the bullying kids in this film would have felt the same way.
I also wanted to think better of the adults in a position to help those in need. Again and again Bully shows us the victims' complaints and cries for help as merely tolerated and even ignored by teachers and school administrators. But the camera lens also can be deceptive, especially when film segments are whittled in the editing room to blurbs designed to create emotional responses. Bully makes villains out of many, including some who, I suspect, are trying to help, but are overworked, undermanned, and rendered impotent by a bureaucratic system of legal no-nos.
But none of these quibbles with the film should detract from its purpose of calling attention to what could be considered a growing crisis in our classrooms -- one that shouldn't be ignored or tolerated, despite what AM radio hosts may say to the contrary.
Directed and photographed by Lee Hirsch. Written by Hirsch and Cynthia Lowen. A Weinstein Co. release, playing at Rave Levis Commons. Rated PG-13 for language and mature content. Running time: 99 minutes.
Critic's rating: ****
Cast: Alex, Kelby, Ja'Maya
Contact Kirk Baird firstname.lastname@example.org 419-724-6734.