One of the most interesting things I took from Lee Hirsch’s documentary Bully was that adults are pretty fucking oblivious when it comes to their kids, and other people’s kids. There’s a moment where a mother is talking about her son, one of her four kids, and mentions that it’s strange that she sees him every day, spends lots of time with him, and still doesn’t feel like she really knows him. Her son is getting tormented daily at school, being choked and hit and stabbed on the school bus, pounded and taunted and humiliated in the hallways, and ignored by the administration he can no longer trust to protect him. Why should he go to his parents? They can’t come to school with him, can’t keep him safe outside the walls of their home. All they can do is go to the administration. The fact that this has been going on so long is a travesty, and at the heart of Bully.
Thirteen million kids are bullied in the United States each year. This number is probably not entirely accurate, incapable of reflecting perhaps millions more children who can’t speak out about the horrors of their day-to-day existence. A number of kids have committed suicide as a result of the erosion bullying does to their souls. Kids are bullied for a myriad of different reasons, from looking funny, looking weak, being fat, being smart, being dumb, being gay, or just being. A bully doesn’t need a reason; a bully needs a victim.
Bully is an outstanding documentary because it treats its subject in a remarkably personal way. We follow the lives of a handful of bullied youngsters. There’s Alex, 12, who was born premature and is unfortunately froggy looking, which draws the attention of those who have dubbed him “fish face.” We also meet Kelby, 17, a lesbian living in the Bible belt whose coming out caused her and her family to become ostracized by her bigoted community, even her homophobic teachers. And then there’s Ja’Maya, 14, for whom the bullying became so awful that one day she stole her mother’s handgun and pulled it out on the bus to ward off the bullies. By putting faces to the problem and showing us, especially in Alex’s case, the actual bullying, we are forced to confront our own ideas about the ways children treat each other.
Hirsch wants more than just to make us feel for these children, he also wants to show us the forces they are up against. Bullying isn’t just an individual behavior – it’s an institutional tradition, condoned, ignored, and forgiven by parents and schools. Administrators and teachers try to deal with it on a case-by-case basis, but ultimately don’t know what to do about it. In one scene, poor Alex is facing a Vice-Principal, who asks him why he doesn’t tell anyone about the abuse from his peers. He mentions that he had reported an incident a year or so earlier in which a kid had shoved his head under a liftable seat on the school bus and then proceeded to sit on him, but that no one had done anything. “I did take care of that,” the VP says. “Did he sit on you again?” Alex mumbles that while he didn’t do that, it didn’t stop him from doing other things. It’s a telling moment, and a powerful one, too. Administrators’ hands may be tied by beauracracy, but merely doing enough to cover their own asses doesn’t make one bit of difference in the life of a child who spends each day worrying about his safety.
Ultimately, Bully is a message of hope. Families of a few suicide victims rally together at state capitals to share their stories with hopes of influencing legislation. One father tells a group of kids it is up to them to bring change through their own behavior – helping others, befriending those with no friends, standing up to bullies on behalf of the weak. And he’s right. The only hope we have when our institutions not only fail us, but provide hollow excuses, is to change ourselves.
The controversy surrounding Bully and its occasional coarse language seems even sillier once you see the movie. The only thing truly offensive here is the truth of the storytelling and the behavior of those who should know better. Even more offensive is the knowledge that many kids in need of seeing this film may not get to because of an arbitrary ratings system that seems to disperse ratings as a form of punishment and reward for content as opposed to a reflection of a film’s purpose and intent. This movie is needed, now more than ever. I don’t think Bully is needed so much by the bullies themselves, though – after all, most bullies don’t even recognize that what they’re doing is wrong. It's needed by the victims who need to realize they are not alone.