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Movie review: “Bully” is a compelling take on young victims’ pain

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PG-13, 1 hour, 38 minutes. At the Mayan.

After months of public and legal wrangling over what rating the “Bully” should be released with, the documentary finally arrives in Colorado with a PG-13 designation.

Lee Hirsch’s empathetic, provocative film features five families living with the fallout of bullying.

Two sets of parents — the Longs and Smalleys — live on with a lifetime of questions and without their young sons. Tyler Long hanged himself at 17. Ty Smalley committed suicide when he was 11. Both deaths are considered bullying-related.

The mother of 14-year-old Ja’Meya Jackson almost lost her daughter to the prison system. In 2009, the picked-on, mild-mannered teen brandished a gun on a school bus in Mississippi.

Sixteen-year-old Kelby Johnson had to leave her school after she came out as a lesbian. It may “get better,” as the smart campaign pitched to gay-lesbian- bisexual-transgender youths states, but Kelby and her family’s experience in Tuttle, Okla., underscores what bad can feel like.

In dealing with the verbal and physical ways some kids torment — even assault — other kids, the documentary contained enough rough language and a scene of jarring violence to warrant an R rating.

At least that was how the Motion Pictures Association of America and its Classification and Rating Administration saw it. So it gave it an R.

It opened in select cities in late March unrated, which meant some chains would not show it or would treat it as an R-rated film.

Last week, the film’s distributor and the MPAA reached agreement on a version that would defuse three F-bombs while keeping a vital (if ethics-nudging) school-bus scene in the movie.

Now that that battle has been won, we can look at “Bully” for what it says to adults about our children and ourselves. The estimated number of bullying incidents will hit 13 million this year.

If that’s true, then what’s our village doing wrong?

In the best tradition, the documentary leaves us with more questions than answers. The cause-effect correlation between bullying and suicide is a troubling one. While we’re trying to raise gentler souls, we also need to grapple with what makes some kids resilient and others so profoundly vulnerable to despair.

You don’t have to agree with the law-enforcement officer who states that Ja’Meya deserves the full brunt of the law to be deeply rattled by how easy it was for her to access a firearm and to go there psychologically.

Schools (and law enforcement) don’t fare particularly well in “Bully.” Too often they seem unwilling or just plain boneheaded about exercising their in loco parentis rights and responsibilities.

Hirsch captures some positively Kafkaesque moments of clueless (even dangerous) bureaucracy. When a well-intentioned administrator makes a kid and his target shake hands, it invites an aggravated sigh from the moviegoer.

Later, Alex Libby’s parents meet with that same administrator. When she tells them she has ridden the bus their 12-year-old is being harassed on and the kids are golden, you question her sanity or honor.

It’s worth noting that Iowa’s Sioux City School District granted Hirsch permission to shoot for the 2009-10 school year. Showing how hogtied or untrained school officials can feel in the face of a daunting social problem could be considered a cry for help.

What is missing from the movie makes its title something of a bait-and-switch. The so-called bully remains too much a mystery.

What makes that kid on the bus feel so free to haul off on Alex? Is it the presence of a peer audience? Is it the lack of moral clarity about violence at home? Hirsch never interviews a parent confronted with their kid’s violent acts.

“Bully” is smart and compassionate about the pain of its wounded subjects and the frustration felt by their parents, seemingly abandoned by the system.

What the powerful film lacks is insight into bullying.

“Bully” is the start of a national conversation, not its final word.

Lisa Kennedy

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  • comment avatar Anna April 13, 2012

    No, my kids are too young. However, we do keep a very open, and ongoing, dialogue about this issue.

  • comment avatar Celia April 13, 2012

    I want to see and take my daughter to see it. She had a few issues with people trying to bully her but she is an extremely confident girl and took the steps her school taught her and it stopped right away. I, on the other hand, was bullied horrible in 8th grade and was in a very dark place for years after it because of it.

  • comment avatar Joe April 13, 2012

    I don’t have to watch this movie, I lived it. My parents never taught me the language of violence so I couldn’t speak it when I entered school. It took years of being bullied before I discarded the parents and the teachers totally ineffective platitudes and learned how to fight. The worst thing a parent can do to a kid who’s being bullied is to tell him not to fight back. If you do so, your kid will have confidence issues all the way into adulthood.

    • comment avatar Jhoa April 29, 2012

      Bullying Requires Non-Education Professionals Bullying requires non-education psoresfionals to step in.Unfortunately, education psoresfionals, as experienced as theyare and have to be with education-related matters, do not havethe know-how or experience needed to deal with radicallyuncontrolled bullying. However, there are police (men and women), psychologists (men and women), and therapists (men and women) who are not in the business of education; but who are trained to deal with the deviant behavior expressed by a true bully. A 1-800 number for bully victims that is easy to remember should be plastered everywhere in schools from the classrooms to the halls to the restrooms to the playgrounds to the busses and athletic fields as gentle reminders to students thinking of getting out of line (bullying). This no-nonsense number would direct the bully victim to immediate help by trained psoresfionals who will evaluate professionally the bully’s mental health and stable or unstable home situation; deal with the bully’s deviant behavior; and help the bully victim through the merciless trauma/abuse he/she experienced all without repercussions to the actual victim. Of course, legal action and prosecution against the bully (not the school) go without saying. As an added incentive, the school administration may dial the number from the school office. Often, but not always, the bully is a repeat offender. Reporting the crime helps authorities build a case against said bully in court holding the bully accountable for his/her actions.

  • comment avatar Each1 April 13, 2012

    The fact that bullying happens all the time at our schools is undeniable, but what makes things x100 worst is when teachers, administrators, and families fail to do anything about it.

    Families of bullies especially seem to have a hard time accepting that their child’s behavior is so devastating to other children. Then again, you have to think, the bullies themselves had to have learned the behavior from somewhere… hmmmmmmmm.

  • comment avatar Chris April 13, 2012

    Bullies grow up to be bullies – as any adult who has been bullied at work can tell you.

    I suppose my geeky nature that invited the bullies when I was a kid was still broadcasting to that boss who decided to crush my good spirit. Her boss was aware and looked the other way.

    Fortunately, my geekiness and good nature no longer mean I’m a pushover. I hired a lawer and clobbered them.

    Stand up to your bullies, kids.

  • comment avatar Natriece Bryant April 25, 2012

    The fact is that bullying is getting worse, but has taken on a different form. Some local schools in Colorado have started a day in April that focuses on the issues of bullying. Denver RAP, the agency that I work with on youth education and awareness, has a program called the Youth Champion Program that focuses on youth that want to make a change in the community. One of the youth in the program informed me of an event that she helped create called “A Day Without Hate”. It is April 27, 2012, and she and other youth from the program went to local schools to promote a Day Without Hate. All students are encouraged to wear all white on that day to show that they will not tolerate bullying in the community. Hopefully it is successful and brings to light the issues behind bullying in the schools.

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