From the outset, “Bully” is upfront with its audience that the film is going to be far from a pleasant viewing experience. Its opening credits are set to Scala’s cover of “Teenage Dirtbag,” a relatively unsubtle choice of non-diegetic music that encapsulates the film’s central thesis: adolescents can be real shitheads. From there, director Lee Hirsch proceeds to provide numerous, effective case studies that support this point. Yet “Bully” feels like it addresses only half of the equation. For all of the documentary’s efficacy in demonstrating how horrible the bullying problem in the United States is, Hirsch does little to further the conversation aside from essentially arguing the obvious point that, hey everybody, bullying is a bad thing.
The center of “Bully” is Alex Libby, a 12 year old experiencing the worst that middle school has to offer. At the bus stop, another child, unprovoked, threatens to break his Adam’s apple. On the bus, he is punched, pushed out of his seat, and strangled. One kid threatens Alex, claiming, “I will fucking end you and shove a broomstick up your ass.” When Alex reluctantly describes these events, his father has to explicitly inform Alex that these kids are doing more than simply “messing around.” It’s an important scene, highlighting the confusing grey area that separates child’s play from bullying. Likewise, Alex unknowingly demonstrates bullying’s vicious cycle when he says, “They push me so far that I want to become the bully.”
The film also highlights stronger, more assertive personalities than Alex’s resolve of non-aggression. As a negative demonstration of how children respond to bullying, Hirsch chronicles the ongoing rehabilitative struggles of Ja’Meya Jackson, a girl who—having been pushed too far—brought her mother’s gun with her on the bus, but was disarmed before she could do any real physical harm. “It feels like everyone just turned against me,” she says. Jackson, despite these actions, comes across as a sympathetic character, as someone who made an extremely poor decision based on unbearable pressure from her peers.
There is also Kelby Johnson, a 16 year old from “bible belt Oklahoma” who has become a pariah along with her family ever since she came out as queer. She is undeniably the most optimistic of the children in the film, claiming that “If I leave, they win,” and nonchalantly laughing while describing an incident in which some other teens intentionally hit her head-on with their car. She has an almost impossibly strong resolve and impressive optimism that lends a nice balance to the film’s more depressing moments.
This leads us to the families of Tyler Long and Ty Smalley. Tyler, fed up with being bullied, committed suicide at the age of 17, and in one of the film’s many vignettes, his mother Tina describes how his body was discovered, pointing out the holes in the closet wall where they removed the shelf that Tyler hung himself from. Smalley’s story is equally tragic, having taken his own life at just 11 years old. As his father Kirk Smalley remarks at an anti-bullying rally, “I will fight bullying forever, because my son will be 11 years old forever.”
However, while Hirsch effectively portrays the immediate aftermath of a suicide with footage of Smalley’s funeral as well as a school board meeting to discuss bullying five weeks after Long’s death, one gets the sense that he could have gotten such footage only by having pounced on these stories immediately after hearing about them in the news. It creates a slightly gross feel of exploitation, undermining some genuinely distressing shots, such as one of an 11-year-old boy crying over his best friend’s open casket.
The culpability of the school system also lends itself to some particularly anger-inducing sequences. In one instance, an assistant principal, Kim Lockwood, asks a victim to shake hands with his bully as a method of reconciliation and then criticizes the victim for not really meaning his handshake. In another scene, Alex Libby’s parents go to talk to Lockwood about how unsafe the bus ride is, to a misdirected response--talking about her own grandchild--and empty promises. Claiming to have ridden that particular bus route, she asserts that, “Those kids are as good as gold.” Both scenes are outrageous, offensive instances of victim-blaming that demonstrate how bullies put on a nice facade when administrators are present.
The issue with “Bully” is that for all of its power in presenting the horrid tactics that bullies use and their victims’ suffering, it does little to present any options of how to resolve the problem. Hirsch seems so preoccupied in depicting the problems that he does little to outline any solutions. Both Tyler Long’s and Ty Smalley’s parents have set up initiatives to reduce bullying, but Hirsch glosses over these until the very end. It is understandable that Hirsch wants to make clear that current efforts against bullying are not enough, but in shooting for some sort of Brechtian lack of catharsis, “Bully” ends up feeling lazy when it comes to a real discussion of how to put an end to bullying other than through greater awareness.
The recent controversy surrounding “Bully” and its initial ‘R’ rating by the MPAA has centered on the film’s ability to start a conversation. How are children supposed to discuss and eradicate bullying when they aren’t even allowed to see their own peers in action? In this sense, “Bully” is a success: it presents how awful bullying is on its victims and those around the victim. But by starting a conversation and then placing the onus on the viewer to do something, “Bully” feels like a shirking of responsibility. It’s almost as if the film is simply saying, “Bullying is awful, now you deal with the rest.”
—Staff writer Brian A. Feldman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.