“I and the public know / What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return.” W.H. Auden
I saw Lee Hirsch’s documentary Bully (previously called The Bully Project) at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, before the sound mix was officially finished; shortly after it was purchased by the Weinstein Company. There may have been a few changes made before its release last Friday so I am writing, as it were, from memory.
Bully couldn’t have been timelier. In the thirteen years since Columbine, America has seen an alarming uptick in suicides and school shootings, much of it tied to bullying. There’s more sensitivity about the subject now; no one would simply blame this tragedy on “media violence” anymore.
But what child, returning home from a school day fraught with verbal or even physical abuse, hasn’t heard from his parents, “kids will be kids” or something to that effect? Some kids possess innate resilience; they can hear such paltry advice once and, perhaps, never take an insult to heart again. Some have a gift for scabrous comebacks that can earn them appreciation. Perhaps some of them are even large or threatening enough to hit a bully back, hard enough so that they seldom get picked on again.
Then, there are kids like fourteen year-old Alex, one of the subjects in Bully. He’s scrawny, bespectacled and poorly coordinated, with a frog’s voice and a gawky, open-mouthed facial expression. There’s a kid like him in every school, who seems to invite contempt from even the nice kids. Hirsch, with his intense, fly-on-the-wall approach, documents some severely disturbing footage of Alex’s daily school bus trips, in which he is pummeled, stabbed with pencils and sat on—all by classmates he later tells his bewildered mother are “friends.”
When Alex’s parents visit the frighteningly oblivious assistant principal of his Iowa middle school, she outright rejects the notion that any kids on the bus are behaving this way, calling them “good as gold.” In an earlier scene, the principal chides a boy for not shaking his tormentor’s hand after a scuffle; “that means you’re just as bad as him,” she coos.
Bully is at its best when it accidentally depicts such outrages, as they unfold, Frederick Wiseman-style. No one sensible can watch Alex’s story and deny that kids—even some nice ones— have still not been taught to show mercy to easy targets, that bullying is not addressed enough as a serious problem in schools.
It’s unfortunate that the other tribulations chronicled in Bully—a teenage girl driven to pull a gun on the school bus winds up in a correctional facility; a girl comes out as a lesbian and is ridiculed by students and teachers alike—are less interesting than Alex’s, perhaps because the victimization is mostly off-camera, discussed after-the-fact, as if on an Oprah special.
But Hirsch certainly draws out pathos from all his case studies, especially when he shows tearful parents, that were once befuddled by their kids, realizing the extent of their misery. The saddest scene involves the gentle, farmer parents of Ty Smalley, coping with their eleven year-old son’s suicide.
But there’s a nagging flaw in Bully that still makes me angry, a year later. Hirsch has the passion and insight to delve even further, to demonstrate not just that bullying is emphatically wrong, but why it happens, and he doesn’t. The only scene that even attempts to penetrate the mind of the bully is cut maddeningly short. When the assistant principal finally puts one of Alex’s tormentors on the spot, the camera pans in on his pudgy face. He smiles to himself as he remembers what hilariously cruel thing he did; then, his expression turns to panic and red-faced embarrassment. He nods in fake understanding and then scuffles out of the office, never to be heard from again.
[Read our article about Bully not getting a rating after a show of force between the Weinstein Company and the MPAA.]
As important as it is to sympathize with bullied children, to see their plight in this much detail—as infuriating as it is that this film was released unrated instead of PG-13 and will therefore have a more limited audience—a more searing and elucidating narrative would examine the bullies themselves. What fears and anguish compel them to act cruel, and why do other, nicer kids idolize them for so long?
As it stands, Bully is a powerful work, but it needs to say more than just “stop bullying.”