Film Review: Bully

Sad, timely and affecting documentary about this country’s bullying epidemic will move audiences but should wake up educational and law-enforcement authorities to take action rather than let these abuses continue.

Lee Hirsch’s moving documentary Bully, about a handful of bullied kids in the Bible Belt (most still in the fight, two who committed suicide), delivers a vivid portrait of these young victims while also capturing their grieving families, indifferent and/or ineffectual authorities, and the thuggish schoolyard perps who victimize with impunity.

Taking his camera to small heartland towns in states like Iowa, Oklahoma and Mississippi, Hirsch tracks the stories of five junior high-schoolers in this long-overdue exposé. Home movies and abundant comment from aggrieved, frustrated parents make the stories all the more poignant. That boys often bully is familiar. What makes Bully maddening is that so little is being done to stem the aggressiveness and protect the children.

Featured most prominently is 12-year-old Alex, so good-natured, smart and stalwart (“I like learning, but I have trouble making friends”) and blessed with loving parents and a gaggle of adoring siblings. But with unconventional looks (Alex was born very premature), he has long been an object of mocking (he’s called “Fishface”) and bullying (in school halls, on the school bus) by classmates often mouthing obscenities (no doubt aggravating The Weinstein Company’s dispute with the ratings board).

What also deepens Alex’s dilemma is that his assistant principal, a chattering cog (the epitome of “Do it by the books/Don’t make waves”), is useless in even imagining reforms. “Buses are notorious” is about all she can offer. What she can do is show off pictures of her new grandchild.

Also victimized is 16-year-old lesbian Kelby, who, in another red state, admits to trying suicide several times but has the support of friends and parents. Her parents share how they accepted her coming out but that the whole family was ostracized in this Bible-thumping community. Also blasting the authorities, her father talks about promises that things will change but “nothing’s ever done.” Kelby, a former school basketball star, is full of hope, saying that maybe she’s the only one in the town who can make a change by standing up for all bullied kids. No slam-dunk there, although Kelby exudes the intelligence, appeal and strength to stand a chance.

Another story unfolds in a small Georgia community, where bullies had long taunted handsome 17-year-old Tyler, a geeky loner, calling him a “fag” or roughing him up by shoving his head into wall lockers. Tyler eventually killed himself. Says his dad, “If there is a heaven, I know Tyler’s there.” He later reiterates what Bully makes clear, that “the administration does not protect the kids.”

In a small Mississippi town, 14-year-old Ja’Meya, a constant target on her school bus, takes matters into her own hands but to disastrous results. Brandishing a gun at her bus-mate bullies, she ends up in a correctional institution as a result of 40 felony charges against her, although no shots were ever fired. The officer in charge of the case is another depressing example of ignorance, prejudice and denial.

Fortunately, some parents of suicidal kids have taken significant action: One couple begins an outreach to similarly stricken parents and another convenes rallies in various cities to bring attention to the problem. At one town meeting addressing school bullying, the provocative question of “Why aren’t the bullies held responsible?” resounds.

What becomes clear is that those guilty aren’t just the bullies and the lax, effete authorities who let the epidemic continue, but the parents of bullies. But in Bully, solutions are elusive.
The doc does triumph in driving home the problem and the attendant suffering, the result of Hirsch corralling such sympathetic victims, parents and friends. But Bully does scream for some sequels, including investigations into effective, real solutions and why, in the first place, too many boys—as history, psychology and human nature have long made clear—have this urge to do harm to innocent kids and animals. Or do we just accept this and move on?