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Movie Review – Bully

At this point it would be hard to find someone who has not heard about Bully. Between the rating fiasco, the subject matter itself, and the fact that the documentary is attached to an anti-bullying movement, everyone is talking about this movie. I couldn’t wait to see it but at the same time I knew it would be painful; bullying is a very sore issue for me as it is for many people. Not that I have ever been bullied, but I’ve stood up for those who have, and I can’t stand to see what it does to children. I was excited that finally a film crew was going to bring this issue to the forefront of our society. Enough about war, enough about politics, enough about the economy; bullying is something that happens right in front of our eyes, right within our reach, something that every single person can make a difference in if they only make an effort.

Kids rallying against bullying.

There was tons of controversy around the MPAA initially giving the film an R rating due either to some language or some harsh scenes of violence. One story is that there was a specific scene responsible for the rating, another is that it was just the count of certain restricted words. A petition was started to get the rating changed, but in common fashion the MPAA was hesitant to change its mind. Then something quite wonderful happened. The Weinstein Company (the studio behind the documentary) announced that they would release the film unrated. Normally this is a huge financial risk, as most theatre chains refuse to show unrated films. The Weinstein Company felt strongly about the film and that it needed to be shown as-is, and AMC actually agreed and quickly announced that they would be allowing minors to see the film as long as they brought a signed permission slip from a parent/guardian that they made available on their website.

This caused a huge uproar from the MPAA and the PTC (Parents Television Council). For those who don’t know, the PTC is a conservative activist group that constantly bullies groups and media products that they feel are harmful to children. They seek to be censors with the same amount of power, if not more, as the MPAA. They are terrorists to freedom of thought and the ability of people to make decisions for themselves. While neither the MPAA nor the PTC has any legal right to restrict a movie from being made, their “labels” do carry weight and can severely impact the financial success of a project. It was great to see the studio for once stand up to these censors and publicly call them out as being wrong. Eventually everyone came to a compromise when the MPAA told the studio to take out three uses of a particular curse word and they would adjust the rating to PG-13. The MPAA also made an exception to their usual rule of making a film wait 90 days after a rating change before being released. It was not only a win for Bully, but hopefully a step forward in the fight against censorship bullies.

Alex, a victim of bullying.

Bully focuses mainly on three children who have been and are still victims of bullying. Alex is a kid who was born extremely premature, and as a result his face is a little different. Other kids at his school (and even his own siblings) call him “fish face” and say that he’s creepy, and many boys beat on him every chance they get. The worst of it is seen on the school bus, where he is punched, kicked, stabbed, and debased. Then there is Kelby, an older girl who came out as a lesbian, and dresses and looks like a boy, so her whole town, even teachers, have ostracized her. There is also Ja’Maya, a young girl who had taken her mother’s gun onto a school bus because she’d had enough of constantly being bullied. Her story takes place when she’s in a juvenile detention center. The film also focuses on the families of two boys who took their own lives because of the stress of being bullied and their plight to spread awareness about the devastating nature of this problem.

There is no denying that each and every story is heartbreaking. Alex was my personal favorite, as his pain and frustration was so visceral and prominent; at times all I wanted to do was reach through the screen and give him a hug. One of the greatest scenes in this film is when Alex is walking down the street talking about girls. It’s one of the few moments that you get to see a kid act like a kid, and you can begin to get to know Alex apart from the bullies, and really get to see his heart. All of the stories are sad, and everyone who sees it will experience moments of horror and outrage. The question is, did Bully successfully shed light on a sensitive subject, and did they do it in such a way that it can be an effective tool in the effort to stop the problem?

It saddens me to say no. In fact, not only do I believe this documentary failed at what should have been its goal, but I think it will have the opposite effect on kids than was intended. I’ve mentioned that the story focuses on victims of bullying. In fact, director Lee Hirsch was bullied himself as a child, and that is what led to his decision to make the documentary. Yes, the victims are a very important part, but how can you have a serious exposé on this subject without exploring the bullies themselves? How can one expect to have a complete discussion without examining both sides? The goal of this documentary is to bring bullying out into the open, and let people see what’s going on in an effort to fix it. But you can’t stop bullying by looking at only the victims; you have to look at the children who are hurting their peers. Why do they think it’s okay? Where are their parents? Are they being bullied and in turn bullying others? Are their parents bullies? There are so many questions that should have been asked by including some of the kids actually doing the bullying, but there was none.

One huge reason this film is going to do more harm than good is how idiotic most of the adults and people in positions of power come across. First you have the principal of the school where Alex is being bullied. This woman should be jailed in my opinion. One of the most glaring scenes of her incompetency is when she tries to have a victim shake a bully’s hand. The victim refuses to shake the bully’s hand because he knows it’s not going to solve anything. The principal tells him that he is lowering himself to the bully’s level and he is just as bad as the bully. The kid incredulously asks how not shaking someone’s hand is on the same level as punching, stabbing, beating and threatening to kill someone. She shrugs it off and says they are the same things, that the victim is not respecting the apology of the other boy. In this scene the victim (not one of the main focuses of the documentary) has more intelligence and wherewithal than the adult who is supposed to protect him.

Speaking of protection, at one point in the documentary the filmmakers decided that the threat to Alex was so great, they needed to show the footage of his torment to his parents and the school. The parents were horrified, and confronted the principal. This woman denies what there is visual proof of, says that all of the kids, on that particular bus especially, are cherubs, and proceeds to pull out pictures of her own grand-baby and brag about it while the parents are in tears pleading for something to be done because there child is not safe. All parents should expect school to be a safe haven, and should be able to trust that every adult there is paying attention and protecting the children from any and all harm. It’s disgusting to think that people who have made children their profession would be so clueless and uncaring.

I can understand how frustrating it must be for a parent to deal with their child being bullied, especially when that child is afraid to talk about it. And after seeing this film, I can see why kids might be reluctant to talk to anyone when they are being bullied. There’s a moment in the movie when Alex’s mom questions him about the bullying. You can tell that she cares, and that she loves him and is trying to do what’s right, but the way she discusses it with him only serves to push him away and make him hide within himself. She inadvertently blames him, asks him what he is doing wrong, and points out that these are not his friends. When Alex asks, “Well if they’re not my friends, what friends do I have?” she says nothing. She lets it sink into her son’s head and heart that he has no friends. I shouted out, “Tell him he has you! You are his mother! You are his friend!” I was so aggravated that this kid had no one to turn to who would properly help him or knew how.

Kelby, a victim of bullying trying to stand up and make a difference.

At this point you may be thinking, this all sounds like the movie is doing a great job of showing the reality of bullying and what these kids are going through. Yes, it does. But is it really that hard to point a camera at a kid who is dying inside and expect audiences to empathize with him and want to help? You’ve got to remember that if this film is really going to make a dent in the bullying problem, it has to reach kids. Kids have to watch this and realize, bullying is wrong, here’s how I can stop bullying, here’s how I can get help, etc. To me it looks like all this film is going to teach kids is how ineffectual and incompetent adults are, and that if you go to them for help they are going to belittle you and make you think that you are at fault. I don’t think most kids ages six to 13 are capable of connecting with the emotion that these victims feel, unless they are being bullied themselves.

Then you have to ask, what would the victims get from this film? Besides that they can rarely turn to adults for help, they also learn that the only way to solve a bullying problem is to move to a new town (as was Kelby’s attempt at resolution), or to bring a gun to threaten those who’ve been bullying you. You see, that’s what Ja’Maya did. Sure, you could argue that her actions weren’t painted in a positive light, but let me break it down for you. We always see Ja’Maya with her mother comforting her. Yes, she’s in a detention center but we don’t ever see the horror of it. We see her pain and sadness, but we don’t really experience the why. It might be obvious to adults that she is sad because she is not with her family and she is not allowed to be free and be a kid, but how much fun is that when you’re being bullied? Eventually Ja’Maya is cleared to go home, so she was removed from the bullying situation for a long period of time and got to go home again. To desperate victims that might seem like an attractive resolution and escape from their predicament.

Ja'Maya, a victim of bullying.

This documentary never goes that extra step. There is a way to still be objective yet show positive paths to hope and a better, safer future for these kids, but it never does. Yes, you have the parents of the kids who took their lives going around and rallying people and schools and children to stand up in the fight against bullies, but that’s it. The only resolution of any kind to any of the stories portrayed in this film is the one of Ja’Maya getting to return home. But is she going back to school? Are the bullies going to be there? What about Alex? What happened to him? We saw many scenes of him nearing his mental and emotional breaking points. Is he getting counseling? Is anyone going to help him? Does that horrible principal still have a job? What about Kelby? Was her family ever able to move and take her to a town where she was accepted and not bullied by her own teachers? None of this is even remotely covered, and that to me is sloppy documentary work.

And sloppy is exactly what this documentary is. Aside from the missing resolution or even updates on the lives of the subjects, the technique of this movie was severely lacking. Just because this is a documentary about kids doesn’t mean it should look like a five-year-old was working the camera. Every three seconds the camera was going in and out of focus. There was no rhyme nor reason behind it; you would have the camera pointed at someone sitting down, and all of a sudden the camera would lose focus, then regain focus. It seriously looked like someone had their hand on the camera at all times and was just turning it arbitrarily to add interest. It’s the most amateurish camerawork that I have seen since I was making movies in grade school. My main problem with this “technique” (or lack thereof) is that it totally took me out of the movie every single time it happened. That means that 75% of this film I spent trying to figure out why in the hell they were having such a problem with the focus, instead of focusing on the story and the message. I can not think of a more appropriate use for the phrase “WTF.”

This film infuriates me because it should have been great. It should have been life-changing; it should have given hope. I see no hope in this film, no promise of safer, healthier lives for children. I see no good lessons being taught to any child going to see this film. I’m sure that most adults will be able to feel the outrage and sorrow for not only these kids and the families of children suffering from being bullied, but also with the lack of help and guidance from idiots within the schools and communities who are in charge of their safety. These people truly need to be reached, they need to get the message and change their ways. But will they after watching this film? And perhaps the most important subjects to reach are bullies themselves. But what will they take away? If they can’t connect with a victim crying right in front of them, how will they be able to empathize with an out-of-focus “fish face” crying on a movie screen?

Bullying is a serious problem and a documentary about it should have been taken more seriously. More effort should have been put into the message, into an examination of why bullying occurs and where it starts, and should have explored ways to put a stop to it. Bully did none of that, and for that I say shame on you, Lee Hirsch. This film barely scrapes by with 1 out of 5 Nerdskulls, and that’s only because the power of these stories can not be denied, but they were not handled appropriately nor responsibly.

Should you see this movie?

Yes.

Should you join in the fight against bullying and make a stand?

Absolutely.

Is Bully a good documentary?

No.

Does this film do its subject justice?

Hardly.