Lee Hirsch’s Bully can’t help but move you. It’s an important and powerful film, one that should be required viewing for kids of any age — and their parents.
With luck, The Weinstein Company will prevail in its battle against the R-rating conferred upon the film by the myopic and narrow-minded MPAA ratings board. The rating supposedly is based on the fact that several kids in the film are captured on film saying the word “fuck.” Needless to say, kids of all ages have heard it — and are probably using it regularly, whether their parents know it or not. Who is the MPAA protecting?
Hirsch’s film examines the cases of a half-dozen different kids around the country. And, while the right-wing crowd undoubtedly expects the kind of bullying that leads to teen suicide to be a product of the godless urban environment of the east and west coasts, Hirsch’s camera takes viewers to such urban hubs as Sioux City, Iowa, and Yazoo County, Miss. He films in Georgia, Oklahoma — hey, the kids in this film are mostly smack dab in the middle of the Bible Belt.
The film starts on a heart-breaking note in Murray County, Ga., with the parents of a teen named Tyler Long, who hanged himself at 17. As his parents note, he never came home bloodied or the victim of obvious physical violence. And yet he suffered severe enough abuse from his peers that he finally ended his own life.
Hirsch checks in regularly with an Iowa 12-year-old named Alex, whose classmates are so blasé about the kind of cruelty they visit upon him that they regularly choke and punch him on the school bus in front of Hirsch’s camera. Alex, bespectacled and gangly, protests, but to no avail.
The film hop-scotches around the South: to a small Oklahoma town where a 16-year-old gay teen is vilified by classmates and even neighbors; to Yazoo, Miss., where a 14-year-old girl is jailed for taking her mother’s gun on the school bus and threatening her tormenters; and back to Oklahoma, where a pre-teen talks about his own history of bullying and how he changed his ways — only to see his best friend kill himself because of the bullying of others.
It also returns to Tyler’s parents, as they struggle with the local school administration to get bullying taken seriously. But that is the most depressing part of the film: the inability of the schools to find an effective method to stop the abuse (and the apparent absence of the parents of bullies in the process).
At one point, Hirsch captures a vice principal at Alex’s middle school forcing two boys to shake hands after a playground altercation. One boy easily sticks out his hand when told to shake and make up; the other sullenly offers first his left hand, then a half-hearted right hand after being admonished by the vice principal.
But as she scolds the less-eager lad, you realize that he, in fact, is a long-time victim of the other boy — who obviously knew he was getting off easy with a handshake. The victim stands his ground with the vice principal, who actually tries to equate his refusal to shake hands with the constant physical and verbal abuse the victim was suffering. The same administrator can only offer platitudes and a weak “We’ll take care of it” when Alex’s parents confront her with Hirsch’s footage of Alex being stabbed with pencils and punched on the bus.
Ultimately, of course, it’s as much about the parents of bullies as the teachers and administrators — and no one is apparently doing anything meaningful. So it’s up to the parents of the victims to use the Internet to start a nationwide anti-bullying campaign — which one despairing pair of parents (of another child who committed suicide) take up with a vengeance.
Hirsch’s film is never sensational or manipulative — just truthful. If it’s unlovely, well, pretty camerawork and slick production values go by the wayside when you have this kind of access to raw reality.
Ultimately, Bully is about having the courage to stand up to bullies — whether they’re in your child’s school or handing out ratings at the MPAA.
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