Bully: Film Review

The Weinstein Company
Alex Libby
Focusing on the experiences of five families, filmmaker Lee Hirsch offers simple, direct and eloquent testimony supporting the need for individual and group action against bullying.

Controversy surrounding the MPAA's ratings decision has dominated news and fired up advocates, but away from all that noise, Lee Hirsch's documentary is an intimate reflection on the bullying epidemic that makes its points quietly and succinctly.

NEW YORK -- Despite vociferous protests from the film’s distributor, Harvey Weinstein, as well as powerful advocacy groups, the MPAA has refused to budge from its R rating on Bully, which is likely to go down among the organization’s more asinine decisions. Lee Hirsch’s affecting documentary offers personal evidence against a scourge that afflicts vulnerable children and youths across the globe. That makes this a potent social-outreach tool that deserves to be seen as widely as possible.

In discussions of the concrete action needed to educate against the bullying epidemic and protect its victims, the most common mitigating view is “kids will be kids,” which is heard from more than one authority figure interviewed here. But the truth is that kids will also talk like kids, and the MPAA’s rigidity about teens dropping a couple of F-bombs is ridiculous considering how much screen violence routinely gets a pass. The Weinstein Co. is right to point up the moral watchdog’s inconsistency by releasing the film unrated.

VIDEO: 'Bully' Director Says Releasing the Film Unrated Is 'The Right Thing to Do'

Hirsch -- whose stirring chronicle of the role of music in the anti-apartheid struggle, Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony, was a Sundance audience award winner in 2002 -- deliberately goes light on factoids and statistics, instead putting human faces on the issue. If Bully is somewhat haphazardly structured and repetitive, there’s no denying the impact of its message or of the distressing stories being told.

Shot by Hirsch over the course of one school year, the film examines how five families have been exposed to bullying. Kelby is a 16-year-old small-town Oklahoma girl ostracized by both students and teachers since coming out as a lesbian. Ja’Meya, a 14-year-old honor student and talented basketball player planning to enlist in the Navy to help out her mother, snapped after the relentless torment of other kids on bus rides to and from her Mississippi school. After taking her mother’s handgun to scare them off, she faces multiple felony counts in a juvenile detention center.

VIDEO: Aisha Tyler Slams MPAA's Rating Decision for 'Bully'

Perhaps the largest chunk of screen time goes to 12-year-old Alex, an awkward, sweet-natured seventh-grader in Sioux City, Iowa, nicknamed Fish Face. He seems determined to downplay the taunting and physical abuse of his schoolmates, misguidedly considering their attention to be the closest he can get to friendship. But the violence-breeds-violence dictum is heartbreakingly conveyed when Alex says through tears, “They push me so far that I want to become the bully.”

While capturing his daily ordeal during unsupervised bus rides -- his aggressors appear uninhibited by the presence of a camera, though some faces are blurred -- the filmmakers become concerned for his safety. They show the footage to Alex’s parents, who take it to school officials. Their well-meaning but ineffectual response hints at the obstacles to finding real solutions.

These three central stories are framed by interviews with two sets of parents from Bible Belt towns, whose sons took their own lives at ages 17 and 11 as a result of being victimized by their peers. All have channeled their grief and anger into impassioned activism, running anti-bullying campaigns and holding rallies and vigils to raise awareness.

STORY: Weinstein Co. to Release Unrated 'Bully' in Protest of 'R'

Through the work of these bereaved families, the Internet is demonstrated as playing a vital role in the educational side of the debate. Kirsch and his co-writer/producer Cynthia Lowen might have benefited from investigating how social network sites, webcams and texting have extended the reach of bullies far beyond school halls, playgrounds and buses, resulting in some of the more high-profile national cases.

However, in concentrating its focus on Southern and Middle American towns, where life generally revolves around the game on Fridays and church on Sundays, and where any deviation from the social norm is not tolerated, Bully builds a case that’s both moving and distressing. Stories like these seem harder to ignore when they come not from tough urban centers but from the heartland.

The film’s ideal destination ultimately will be television, but institutional showings also seem an obvious route, making it required viewing for parents and educators, but primarily for kids, whether they be victims or perpetrators of bullying or simply bystanders who need to be encouraged to speak out. In the meantime, someone should go beat some sense into the MPAA.

Opens: March 30 (Weinstein Co.)
Production company: Where We Live Films
Director-director of photography: Lee Hirsch
Writer-producers: Lee Hirsch, Cynthia Lowen
Executive producer: Cindy Watt
Music: Ion Furjanic, Justin Rice, Christian Rudder
Editors: Lindsay Utz, Jenny Golden
No rating, 98 minutes