The Weinstein Brothers are champions at using controversy to garner publicity for their films. Recently they used that skill to the hilt to stir up public interest in their documentary “Bully,” an intimate look at the problem of bullying in public schools. First they inserted enough explicit language to earn an R rating. Then they complained vociferously to the rating board that the R would prevent the most important audience from seeing the film. The controversy was reported in the media, and reviewers like me sat up and took notice. I viewed “Bully” the day it opened, fully expecting it to knock “Hunger Games” off its throne as the most talked-about film of the season.
Katniss Everdeen need not worry; she still owns the throne. “Bully” is a good documentary. It might even be an important documentary. Those who have experienced any form of bullying will probably find it a very moving documentary. But I don’t think anyone is going to be flocking to see it, regardless of the rating. It will probably end up in many school libraries, however, and many students will see it in their social studies classes for years to come.
The film follows the stories of five students from four states (Georgia, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Mississippi) who have experienced bullying for a variety of reasons. One is small for his age. Another suffers the physical effects of a premature birth. Yet another is a lesbian. Two have committed suicide, and are represented by interviews with their parents and in clips from home movies. The filmmakers were able to get surprisingly candid scenes of students abusing these kids on the bus, in the cafeteria, and in the hallways, as well as candid scenes of administrators, teachers, and parents — people who often make fools of themselves as they discuss the problem. I often thought to myself, “Didn’t they realize they were being filmed?” I applaud the filmmakers’ ability to elicit such open, unabashed realism. No one in this film was on his best behavior.
Except, perhaps, for the school administrators. They fairly glow in their obvious attempt to put their best feet forward and shine for the cameras. The principal at Alex’s school stands in the hallway as the students arrive from the bus. One boy comes to her with his hand on his head and reports, “A kid slammed my head into a nail!” The principal puts on her sweetest, most understanding voice and says, “I’ll bet you didn’t like that, did you?” Another boy walks past, visibly upset, and she says to the camera, “He’s such an unhappy child.” In another scene she forces two older boys to shake hands as a way to resolve what seems to be a longstanding battle. The bully extends his hand, but when the victim of his bullying is reluctant to do so, she chastises him, saying that he is now the bully and that it’s his fault. “Why don’t you just get along?” she coos after the bully leaves. “He was willing to shake your hand. I think the two of you could be friends.” The boy, nervous and confused, responds, “The cops told us to stay apart.” This principal hasn’t a clue. Not a clue.
Another school administrator tries to whitewash the issue. “Is it an ongoing problem in our school?” she asks rhetorically. “No it is not,” she answers herself, vigorously nodding her head as she says it. I would love to have an expert explain that body language! Another administrator offers a similarly Pollyannish response when parents complain about the abuse their son is experiencing on the bus. First she says, “Buses are notorious for abuse,” and offers, “I can put him on another bus” — rather than trying to solve the problem. The mother suggests (wisely, I might add), “When I was a kid the bus driver pulled over and wouldn’t take anyone home until everyone settled down.” Isn’t that kind of an obvious policy? But the principal simply says, “I’ve ridden Bus 54, and they were good as gold.” Several of us in the audience laughed out loud at that idiotic response. Well, duh! You were on the bus! Of course they behaved!
The film does a fine job of revealing the problems experienced in the communities it covers, but it offers few satisfying solutions. Devon, who was bullied for four years, says in an interview, “I stood up for myself, and they leave me alone now.” But when Ja’Maya tries this technique, she ends up in juvenile jail for several months. Alex simply gives into the abuse, acknowledging sadly, “At least it’s attention. I don’t mind it that much.” His story is perhaps the saddest, because he feels so lonely in addition to being bullied. He just wants a friend. Telling school authorities and the police also accomplishes little. When a vice principal asks one of the bullied boys why he didn’t speak up sooner, he responds, “Because you didn’t do anything about it last year when I told you that X sat on my head.”
Only one family makes what I consider the right choice: they take their daughter out of school and teach her at home. Why would any thinking, caring parent subject a child to this kind of torture day after day? When are parents going to wake up and realize that the public school system itself is broken beyond repair?
While “Bully” is a good movie, it is hardly a great one. My biggest complaint is that its scope is so limited. These children all lived in similar small towns in the South or Midwest, and all seemed to come from similar poor socioeconomic backgrounds. That is hardly a representative sampling. An estimated 13 million children experience bullying every year, representing every region of the country, every size of community, and every socioeconomic group. Moreover, children used to find a safe haven after school hours. But bullying has left the schoolground and now occurs increasingly at home, especially through the internet. Children simply can’t get away from the painful words and public gossip. None of this is highlighted in the film. Nevertheless, I consider “Bully” must-see viewing for anyone who has a child attending a public school.
What made me saddest as I watched this film was not the funeral of little Ty, one of the boys who committed suicide, or even watching a boy ram Alex’s head against the back of a bus seat. It wasn’t hearing Alex’s principal say, “Boys will be boys.” It was the sight of Alex’s own mother browbeating and chastising him for not telling her that he was being bullied at school, followed by his sister joking that she’s embarrassed at school because none of her friends like him. He’s surrounded by bullies at school, and by well-intentioned bullies at home. I just wanted to wrap my arms around that little boy and whisk him away from all of them. All of them.
“Bully,” directed by Lee Hirsch. Weinstein Bros., 2011, 99 minutes.