Film Review BULLY

Directed by Lee Hirsch
Written and produced by Lee Hirsch and Cynthia Lowen

Review by Clarissa K. Wittenberg

April 13, 2012

“Bully” is a stunning documentary in every sense of the word. It is a riveting film to watch, although unscripted, there is intrinsic human drama in every frame. It captures the lives of five young people affected by bullying, two of whom find life unbearable and kill themselves. One boy is awkward and has some facial abnormalities; one boy was small, one shy. One girl, self-declared gay, was shunned by her schoolmates, but somehow found the courage to see bullying as a problem she could help to change. One girl was desperately trying to be good and had excelled in sports, but was marginalized and stigmatized in her small Mississippi town, pushing her to take her mother’s gun to hold her classmates hostage in a crowded school bus. Each story holds up a mirror to American culture. “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” “Guns protect us,” “Same sex couples threaten the institution of marriage.”

As good as Hollywood is at conjuring up American characters, homes and towns, the real thing is unmistakable. Although the material is incendiary, the filming, camera work and the editing, is very respectful. The acts and attitudes that it captures are familiar to all of us. Most of us have played victim and/or bully at one time or another. Most of us have observed bullying. It is part of the careless violence of American childhoods.

Unfortunately, the indifference toward, or even secret support of, the bullying by parents, teachers, bus drivers, police, and others is totally believable. The film makes it clear that violence deadens one’s ability to protest and builds fear of more abuse to the point where the child who is bullied begins to play a role in the conspiracy by trying to appear untouched and becomes almost unable to tell anyone about the mistreatment. It brings shame and it makes it harder to tell an adult. That in turn, makes it harder for adults to know the truth. Classmates too help to hide the truth. No one tells.

Originally the Motion Picture Association of America had rated “Bully” R. The filmmaker had asked for a P-13 rating so kids could see the film. The distributor chose instead a limited release without a rating. The denial of the P-13 rating was based upon the “bad language” in the film. The “language” was the actual text of the bullying captured by the filming and as such was totally familiar to the vast majority of kids. In fact, it was essential to the truth being filmed. There was also the suggestion that one particularly violent episode should be cut. (The filmmakers instead showed that section of the film to parents and teachers and then interrupted the film saying that they had done so.) Fortunately, this rating decision has been reversed and now the film has P-13 rating. I had the good fortune to see “Bully” in an auditorium filled with middle school and high school students and believe me, they knew about bullying and its repercussions, but like the rest of us, the issue is what can be done? When an assistant principal assures distraught parents of a boy being victimized that she will talk to the aggressor and “take care of it,” the students groaned. When the parents say the school bus ride is overrun with bullying, she demurs and says she has ridden on that bus and that the “kids were good as gold.” Another groan came from the audience. But overall, the audience was exceptionally quiet and attentive; they “got” what they were seeing.

One exceptional value of “Bully” is that it provides raw material for new thinking about a common problem. It pierces the pat answers of “boys will be boys,” “some girls are mean,” or “children are cruel,”. Sometimes the children being victimized have visible handicaps or identifiable traits, but sometimes it is unclear who is who. In one scene after an incident of bullying, a school administrator is instructing two boys to shake hands and make peace. One stretches out his hand and is dismissed; the other refuses the handshake and is criticized. Guess which is which? It also shakes up comforting illusions. It is often thought that if a child had a strong and loving family that they could withstand the social stresses, including bullying, that occurs. These families were loving, attentive and concerned. They were stopped at almost every turn by the authorities whose help they sought. It would be good, if we could lose the knee jerk assumption that bad parenting was to blame. The film closes with strong scenes of gatherings of parents and kids, who “speak” for those who were lost.

Lee Hirsch and the Weinstein Company are to be commended. The kids, parents, and all the adults around these kids are also to be praised. Because of their awareness of the dangers of bullying, the Sioux City, Iowa School Board allowed the filmmakers access to its schools and its buses thus showing genuine concern about the problem. You have to hope that seeing themselves, seeing the situation anew, that they found beneficial challenges to master. The issue of bullying is increasingly visible and none of us know exactly how to prevent it. This film has been described as a “rallying cry.” If so, we need more such honest films. There are stories to be told of the bullies as well as those of their victims. And, as one teacher says, “I don’t have magic.” This film will and should provoke discussion and hopefully bring a new awareness of the dangers as well as ways of making the lives of our children safer and more positive.

BULLY (99 minutes, at area theaters, Rated PG-13).

Clarissa K. Wittenberg was a founder and editor of the Washington Review, a journal of arts and literature that documented cultural life in Washington for over 28 years. She is currently Creative Director at the Washington Film Institute.