PLOT: A documentary on the effect of childhood bullying, focusing on the experiences of several students in Georgia, Oklahoma, Iowa, Mississippi, and Texas, and the grief stricken families of two bullied boys who committed suicide.
REVIEW: BULLY is a film that's been very controversial over the last few months, but not in the way that it should be. The intrigue these days seems to be over the MPAA's harebrained, and shockingly misguided attempt to slap an R-rating on a documentary that was specifically designed to be shown in high-schools, in order to educate students on the very epidemic that many are either victims of, or perpetrating on a day-to-day basis.
In an effort to give a truthful, “no holds barred” look at the day-to-day ugliness that is bullying, director Lee Hirsch, and producer Harvey Weinstein, made the controversial decision to present the student taunts in an uncensored fashion, meaning that we get a couple of “f-words” and many ugly slurs and put-downs. This is simply the reality of bullying, but the MPAA wants it watered down, and as such- is unlikely to get the school support it was designed to rally if it's slapped with an R-rating. All this despite a precedent being set by the MPAA a few years ago with GUNNER PALACE, that allowed that film- despite about 42 uses of the word "fuck" get a PG-13, as it was a film about the troops. I guess the troops are OK, but kids aren't... But onto the film itself...
Bullying is a problem that refuses to go away, and it's an epidemic that's touched many lives, including my own. In high school, I was regularly bullied, and to this day- those memories sting, and many of the bullying scenes presented here took me back to the days I've tried to forget. As such, BULLY is powerful film. The stories presented by Hirsch, himself the victim of bullying, are devastating. The plight of one boy in particular, Alex- really broke my heart. A premature birth, Alex looks and acts awkward, but has a good heart. He's bullied with such regularity, that we see later in the film that's he considers it just a normal part of his life- with his own sense of self-worth being practically nil.
The other stories are just as affecting, with them running the gamut from a recently outed teen Lesbian being forced to contend with the daily taunts of her conservative Christian classmates (and even more devastatingly, her bigoted teachers) to an imprisoned teenaged girl, who was locked up after bringing a gun to school and threatening her bullies. None of the stories here have a definitive happy ending, and one gets the sense that no matter what happens, these kids will continue to struggle.
However, BULLY is not the definitive look at bullying that I thought it would be. My chief criticism is that Hirsch's perspective is too narrow. He focuses on the heartland, when it's a problem that's so rampant- a much wider sample could, and should have been taken. Also- in an effort to be non-offensive, maybe not enough fingers are pointed, with many of the teachers demonstrating a shockingly blassé attitude to what's happening under their noses. Part of me feels like Hirsch should have been harder on them, although I suppose their just a small cog in a big machine.
Another big problem is that absolutely no time is spent with the bullies themselves. To understand the problem, you need to understand the cause- and we'll never be able to treat the problem without confronting the bullies themselves. I'll never forget an experience I had a few years ago. I used to work as a tech producer on a syndicated Canadian talk show, and one day the host did a piece on bullying. We invited people to call in with their stories, and sure enough an ex-bully did. He told us about how a kid he bullied in high school committed suicide, and how ever since then he's been plagued by nightmares and guilt over his actions, which led to a downward spiral of drug addiction and self-hate. To me, those types of stories need to be included, as it's only through showing both sides of the coin that we'll really be able to confront the issue. If a real dialogue could be opened up between the bullies and their victims, then maybe we can find some common ground.
All that aside, while I had some issues with BULLY, and I wish it had taken a broader approach, I can't deny that it's a powerful film, and one that certainly should be shown in schools, rating or no rating. Like WAITING FOR SUPERMAN, it paints with broad strokes, but if that's what it takes to get the word out- so be it.
|Extra Tidbit:||In Quebec, BULLY is rated G. Just sayin'|