Gripping new doc ‘Bully’ exposes schoolyard epidemic
For many people, middle/junior and high school are ordeals to be slogged through on the way to one’s “real” life. Yet, there’s never any shortage of chirpy idiots around trying to convince us that these are “the best years of your lives.” Tell it to Alex, Ja’Meya, Kelby, and Tyler, the real-life teen heroes and heroines struggling (or failing) to survive their school years in Lee Hirsch’s gripping documentary, Bully. If, like me, you’d rather not spend another nanosecond inside of a school, even virtually, Bully will be a kind of endurance test—which is why it limns the endurance test of middle/high school with such effective and sobering clarity.
Twelve-year-old Alex Libby is bright, bespectacled, and a bit geeky-looking. (Who isn’t at 12?) After obtaining permission to film inside a middle school in a suburban Sioux City, Iowa, neighborhood, Hirsch was drawn to Alex as the child most often tormented by his peers. Comfortable and secure at home with his parents and younger siblings, but unskilled at making friends, Alex is routinely taunted, punched, threatened, and humiliated on the bus to and from school, behavior he tries to laugh off, as if he were in on the joke, because he’s learned that no one in authority will help him.
Kelby is a vibrant, 16-year-old Oklahoma lesbian who was kicked off the girls’ basketball team because nobody wanted to touch her. Her father is willing to pack the family off to a new life in some larger place (away from “the ugliness”) where his daughter might not feel like such an outcast, but Kelby wants to stick it out, convinced that “all it takes is one person to stand up.” In Yazoo County, Miss., another star athlete and honor student, 14-year-old Ja’Meya tried to make a stand—waving her single mom’s handgun at a bus full of her abuse-spewing tormentors. No shots were fired, but now she’s in Juvenile Hall facing 22 counts (apiece) of kidnapping and attempted assault.
Most heartbreaking are the stories of kids who didn’t survive their bullying. The parents of Tyler Long, a Georgia youth who hanged himself in his bedroom closet at age 17, try to rebuild their shattered family and seek justice for other bullied kids. Oklahoma dad Kirk Smalley, whose boy, Ty, committed suicide at age 11, says wistfully, “We’re nobodies … if some politician’s son was getting picked on in a public school, there’d be a law tomorrow.”
What’s frustrating to all concerned is the lack of any kind of effective measures to stop the bullying—teachers, cops, bus drivers, administrators, even parents too often resort to the useless “boys will be boys” clichés as an excuse to do nothing. (When Hirsch shows the Libbys footage of one of Alex’s nightmare bus rides, his mom turns on Alex as if it were his fault.) Most egregious is Kim Lockwood, assistant principal at Alex’s school. “What are we going to do about it?” she asks a bullying victim, as if it wasn’t her responsibility. She forces another victim to shake hands with his tormentor, as if that will solve everything, and blithely tells Alex’s parents that the kids on his bus are “as good a gold.” And she’s not the only clueless official; when the Longs convene a town hall meeting on bullying, no one from the school board even shows up.
The film is skewed to the stories of the designated victims, and it’s impossible not to empathize with these kids and what they have to go through every single day. But it would have been interesting if Hirsch had trained his camera on some of the bullies themselves, observed their home and school lives, perhaps pondered what set of circumstances (parental laxity? school permissiveness? our toxic culture? sheer maliciousness?) led them to believe what they’re doing is OK.
Of course, it doesn’t matter to the bullied what motivates their oppressors. Of larger concern is what steps are being taken to address the issue and make kids safe in their own schools. The answer is, not much, which is why the Longs and the Smalleys have launched their own nationwide anti-bullying campaign, rallying teens and concerned adults around the slogan, “Stand For the Silent.” (A link for “The Bullying Project” is provided at the end of the film.)
After wrangling with the MPAA over a few F-bombs (right, like kids don’t hear this language every day), Bully is being released with a PG-13 rating. Which means those who most need to see it, can—bullied kids who need to know they’re not alone, and bullies and bystanders who need to see the consequences of their actions.
★★★ (out of four)
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A film by Lee Hirsch. A Weinstein Company release.
Not rated. 99 minutes.