New doc offers a compelling look at bullying, if not the whole story
Published: April 11, 2012
Directed by Lee Hirsch
Opens April 13 at the Charles theatre
As kids pour out of the schoolyard, they course through hallways and disappear, leaving behind two boys and one adult. The adult tries to mediate, demanding that all problems be put aside. She tells the students to shake hands. One happily obliges, but the other fumes. Finally, he gives in, passively slapping the hand stretched out before him. When asked why he can’t forgive, he says his forgiveness won’t stop the bullying, that he’s complained to school administrators, and yet it continues. He’s furious and defenseless at the same time, and the adult before him isn’t offering any new solutions. He gives up and walks off. The scene unfolds quickly; these aren’t central figures in the film, but their altercation succinctly sums up the problem the new documentary Bully sets out to address.
It starts with shoves in the schoolyard and taunts in the hallway, then escalates to pencil stabbings on the bus and getting grabbed forcefully by the neck amid a sea of either aggressive or oblivious faces. All of this is pretty standard for a day in the life of Alex, a lanky and bespectacled middle schooler who’s sort of at a loss for how to handle all this. And then there’s Kelby, who recently came out of the closet only to find her classmates cold or outright violent. She wants to stick it out at her school, not let her enemies win, but it’s getting harder and harder to fight her battle alone. Ja’Meya, an honor student fed up with feeling powerless at the hands of her tormentors, decides to respond by pulling out a gun after being threatened on the bus one day. And then there are the fallen, the forever silent, who will never have the chance to speak out.
These are the stories that unfold throughout Bully, directed by Lee Hirsch. Spanning five states, the film touches on the different ways bullying manifests itself, as well as the aftermath. There are kids such as Tyler Long and Ty Smalley, who chose to end their lives after years of persecution, and the film follows their families as they deal with profound anger and loss in the wake of their deaths.
And then there’s Ja’Meya’s family, who is grappling with a different sort of loss. The camera follows the young teen’s mother as she visits her daughter in a juvenile detention center, unsure of when her child can return home. These shades of heartache are displayed onscreen with little manipulation. The film lacks voice-over narration (and only a few explanatory title cards here and there), and the cinematography and editing are largely clean and straightforward. The people directly involved tell their own stories, which are all strong enough to stand on their own.
Hirsch’s confidence in leaving things be creates a commanding documentary, and the honesty onscreen makes the film’s message all the more convincing. The crew was present for 11-year-old Ty Smalley’s funeral, and the footage needs no assistance in highlighting just how tragic bullying can be. We see his parents wracked with grief; his best friend Trey stands with men twice his size to serve as a pallbearer. Later, Trey talks about his bond with Ty, showing the film crew the pair’s favorite spot to hang out, explaining how Ty was the coolest kid he knew. While hiking through a field, he swings a long blade of grass and confesses that he too was a bully years back, abusing other kids because he just wanted to belong. But then he realized there were better, more positive ways to feel powerful.
This moment is one of the most enlightening parts of the film, and brings up one aspect of the problem that Bully could have more deeply explored. We hear from the victims, but what about the kids out there causing all the pain? If we knew more about why they do it, it would likely make prevention easier for parents, students, and school administrators. Although the documentary doesn’t conclude with any clear-cut solutions, it does set out to get people talking. The Motion Picture Association of America just changed the film’s rating from R to PG-13, making it more easily accessible to just the demographic it should reach, so time will tell if the conversations that arise lead to lasting changes.
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