Review: Bully (2012)

There’s a scene midway through Bully where young Alex, one of the targets of bullying Lee Hirsch’s documentary focuses on, explains that if he didn’t let his friends bully him, he wouldn’t have any friends at all. This sense of isolation and helplessness is at the focal point of Bully and is the one feeling that links together all of its subjects. In fact, isolation due to being different (whether strange, gay, new, etc.) may be the one component that implicitly makes children targets of bullying.

The North American school system suffers from the prevalence and acceptance of bullying. This is a fact. While the traditional response has been to shirk any responsibility for addressing the issue by saying that kids are mean, and that you can’t control their nasty behaviours, the recent rash of teen suicides caused by bullying that have steadily occurred over the past few years has made this course of action not just untenable, but damaging. By refusing to address the root of bullying and adopt a zero-tolerance policy regarding bullying, the system is essentially validating bullying.

How bullying pervades the everyday lives of children and how the school system and adults of various kinds, from school administrators to teachers to parents, inadvertently support the existence of bullying is the focus of this insightful documentary. Bully gained a lot of press when the MPAA slapped the film with an R-rating for a few scenes of children cursing, but this proposed R-rating (now downgraded to a PG-13) gives a false image of the film’s rawness and disturbing content.

While there is nothing palatable about the experiences the children in Bully face, the film is appropriate for people of all ages. It has the potential to illuminate children on the issues of bullying they too often ignore in their classrooms and social circles, and perhaps more importantly, it lets parents know that inaction on their part is not an option.

Bully addresses a pervasive social issue from a microscopic lens. It is intensely personal and surprisingly emotional. There are no talking heads here discussing bullying statistics and no graphics highlighting areas of bullying across the country. Although it is an activist film, attempting to promote change regarding society’s handling of bullying, the film is surprisingly subtle.

You don’t get the sense that Hirsch is proselytizing. This is mainly because the core thrust of Bully, that we, as members of society, need to stand up for the victimized in our personal relationships and in our social roles, appeals to our innate morality. Only a monster would be untouched by the experiences of these unfortunate children, and by extension, a good person should extend their sympathy for the children into action addressing the problem.

Beyond its moral purpose, Bully is merely a testimony of childhood experiences, allowing the victims of bullying and the parents and friends of those victimized to speak about their experiences in their own words. Some of these families have lost children to suicide, and their stories show that beyond all the statistics and media attention that follows issues of bullying, these statistics are real children lost to a real problem plaguing our society.

The film also lets the images of bullying speak for themselves as the camera crew follows some of the children around at school, witnessing their abuse firsthand.

The fact that the bullies still act out against these helpless children even in the presence of a camera recording their actions is astounding. They have no shame, and even seem to revel in the attention of an onlooker. The camera’s perspective of viewing, but not mediating, the conflict does a good job of putting the viewer into the position of the bystander who witnesses acts of bullying, but does nothing. It subtly makes the viewer feel compliant, and hopefully, outraged at the helplessness of the victim and their own inaction.

As a film, Bully is not the deftest documentary. It lacks answers and seems to revel too much in the helplessness of the situation, offering little in way of solutions, even hypothetical ones, for the problem of bullying in schools. It could have learned from Steve James’ The Interrupters and similarly addressed a prevalent social issue (inner city violence in The Interrupters; bullying in Bully) by unflinchingly chronicling all the sides of the matter. In short, Bully could have benefited from exploring the bullies.

But that isn’t the real purpose of the film. Bully is meant to give a voice to the voiceless, encourage those who suffer from bullying, and empower the moral spectators to leave their vantage points and act to change the system. The film is more a movement than a movie, and I suspect that it’ll do plenty of good if grade-school families get a chance to see it.

7 out of 10

Bully (2012)

Directed by Lee Hirsch; written by Lee Hirsch and Cynthia Lowen.

Bully is currently playing at the Roxy Theatre in Saskatoon.