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Movie Review: Bully

April 13, 2012
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BullyThis year over 13 million kids will be subjected to bullying in one form or another. The problem has increased in magnitude with the advent of social media, allowing kids to attack one another from behind a keyboard or phone. Lee Hirsch tackles the hot button issue in his new documentary, Bully. It follows the stories of five families who have been directly impacted by bullying. No doubt Hirsch knows the best way to engage viewers in this type of issue is to put a face on it.

Hirsch and producer Cynthia Lowen “embedded” themselves at a middle school in Sioux City, Iowa in order to chronicle the life of Alex, who is relentlessly bullied at school. He suffers physical and mental abuse from schoolmates, and is essentially ostracized by the entire student body.  Alex was born prematurely and has some unusual features that lead to the kids calling him fish face. He has no friends, and has to suffer indignities at home when his sister tells him how creepy everyone thinks he is. It’s a horribly lonely existence for a teenaged kid to endure, and it breaks your heart.

His parents’ repeated attempts to have the school intervene are met with blank stares and empty promises. The staff (especially Vice Principal Kim Lockwood) is maddeningly incompetent when it comes to the problem. There may not be a surefire fix, but they don’t even make the pretense of trying to do anything. In fact, Lockwood seems to think she does a swell job of policing the kids already. The camera tells us otherwise.

If that doesn’t tug on your heartstrings, there are two families that have lost children to suicide as a result of being bullied. There is also Kelby, a spunky girl from Tuttle, Oklahoma. When she came out as a lesbian, the community turned their backs on her entire family. Her dad is supportive, but has had his own share of harassment due to his daughter’s sexual orientation. He thinks they should pack up and leave town but she’ll have none of it. She wants to stay and tries to make a difference.  Finally there’s Ja’Meya from Mississippi who is facing up to 45 criminal charges for bringing a gun on board a school bus when she got fed up with daily verbal abuse.

The film connects on an emotional level because of the subject matter, and it deserves to be seen, but it is not without its flaws. Hirsch exposes the problem, but offers no solution, and Slate uncovered some facts about one of the boys (Tyler) who committed suicide that were conveniently glossed over. He was diagnosed with ADHD, bipolar disorder and Asperger’s, all conditions that may have played a role in his decision to kill himself. Hirsch never delves into how Tyler was bullied; it is just taken at face value that it caused his death. Certainly withholding all the facts makes for a more compelling narrative, but it’s a little misleading.

Waiting for Superman was accused of “cherry picking” the students and the handful of charter school successes that were featured; this is nearly the same thing. Both films hurl massive problems at the audience, but offer little in terms of solutions, they make you feel utterly helpless and depressed when you leave the theater. Still, both films deserve accolades for bringing their respective topics to the mainstream. Anything that starts a dialogue is to be commended.

My other qualm with the film is the camera work. Since Hirsch and Lowen wanted to be as discreet as possible, they filmed quite a bit on a digital camera. Naturally there is a lot of shaky-cam going on, particularly during Alex’s story arc. I can usually handle that type of footage, but this time it really made me feel ill, because it was combined with constant adjustments on focus. The zooming in and out started to wear on me, and I found it distracting. I’m aware that this is the only way Hirsch could capture some of the footage, but I didn’t care for it. Those problems are not enough to thwart a recommendation, though. Bully is a must see for students, administrators, parents and teachers. The film recently won a fight to receive a PG-13 rating after previously being rated R by the MPAA (for cursing). It would have been a shame had the movie been stuck with the rating. It would effectively guarantee that the very demographic who ought to see this film could not.

Thankfully the film ends with a bit of hope. There is a swelling grass-roots movement called Stand for the Silent that was started by one of the families who lost their son. They have managed to reach President Obama with their story. Hopefully more kids and families will join the movement as a result of seeing the film. It’s a crucial component to raising awareness.

Rating 3.5/5 Rated PG-13

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