The high-profile new documentary Bully tackles the issue of adolescent peer bullying, particularly as it occurs in schools. The film gained some notoriety the last couple months as it has served as a battleground between the Weinstein Company, which produced it, and the MPAA, the organization that assigns ratings to films, sometimes to controversial effect. The MPAA gave Bully an R rating for language, Harvey Weinstein called foul and said he'd just release the film unrated, the story blew up in the press, and compromise was achieved when a few F-words were cut to "qualify" for an arbitrary PG-13. At stake in the rating decision was the audience of teens who ostensibly would most benefit from seeing the film.
To my surprise, Bully is less geared to a teen audience than expected, instead aimed more at teachers, administrators, and parents. If progress is to be made in epidemic bullying, it will have to come from the top, Bully argues.
Bully's perhaps most critical flaw is that it doesn't investigate what makes kids bully each other in the first place or give a voice to the bully — not for them to provide a defense but to have complete coverage of the issue. Instead, Bully focuses on a patchwork of bullying victims and their families.
Alex, a 12-year-old from Iowa, is picked on because of his looks, with taunts and violence so bad the film's producers had to show their footage to parents and school officials to intervene.
Kelby, a 16-year-old from Oklahoma, is gay and lives in a town small enough that there's really no one else like her. Her situation brings into focus the idea that if she were in a bigger city, things may not be so difficult for her. In fact, all of those profiled live in rural areas. Is bullying worse in rural America versus larger schools and communities? The film doesn't say.
Ja'Maya, a 14-year-old from Mississippi, is different from Bully's other subjects because she reacted differently: She pulled a gun on them, "just to scare them." For this, she has been incarcerated in a juvenile detention center and is facing felony charges. The pain she and her mother express shows deep regret. She was bullied by a pack of kids and reacted poorly. She's a victim, too. It reminds one that bullying has reportedly played a role in a number of school shootings over the years, including those at Columbine, Jonesboro, and Paducah; the day before their irrevocable actions, the to-be shooters were themselves yet more innocent victims of bullying.
If Alex's school-bus nightmares invoke unpleasant memories, even more effective is the palpable sorrow from the stories of the Long and Smalley families, each of whom tell the stories of sons who committed suicide as a result of bullying.
Director Lee Hirsch fails the subject matter to some degree, mostly through overusing such tired doc tropes as shaky cam (edginess!) and having the picture move in and out of focus during interview scenes (intimacy!).
The bullies themselves are villains, mostly off-screen, but one school administrator unwittingly provides herself as another person to blame. The assistant principal at Alex's school is routinely clueless on camera, damning kids to further bullying because she just doesn't see that it's a problem in her school. She comes to represent the teachers everywhere who think that the kids can just work it out, the educators who think a handshake following an instance of physical bullying means the issue is put to bed.