Alex Libby, one of five stories in Lee Hirsch’s Bully

Lee Hirsch’s powerful new documentary Bully movingly tells the story of five kids who are among the more than 13 million children the Department of Education estimates are bullied in schools each year. On one hand, it’s true that bullying of one form or another has existed for as long as there have been kids, but the stories in Hirsch’s film make it painfully clear that the phenomenon has become much more damaging and dangerous than we might remember from our days in school.

Ja’Meya is a 14-year-old Mississippi girl who brought her mom’s gun to school one day to scare off the bullies who taunted her each morning and afternoon on the bus. She was charged with a felony for each child on the bus and hauled off to juvenile detention. Kelby is a 16-year-old who was bullied and essentially shunned by the small Oklahoma town she lives in when she came out as a lesbian. Alex is a 12-year-old Iowa boy who daily suffers the verbal and increasingly physical harassment that comes from being a little bit different. Finally and perhaps most tragically, there are the Longs and the Smalleys, two sets of parents whose sons killed themselves as a result of the bullying they suffered.

Less an indictment of the system or of bad kids or bad parents, Bully is really more an exposé of a problem that is all too often written off as just “kids being kids.” There are villains to be sure, a vice-principal in Alex’s school comes off particularly badly as she seems more interested in placating parents and sweeping her school’s problems under a rug rather than confronting them and rooting them out, but Hirsch doesn’t point fingers. Bully is about the victims and in a sense, it’s for them.

There are also no talking head experts on the subject spouting statistics and analysis. There’s no attempt to find the root causes or even to provide concrete solutions to the problem. At first that seems like a flaw, but those are perhaps avenues for future documentaries. First people need to wake up to the problem and that’s what Bully does. It is a message to parents and teachers that we have an increasingly dangerous and damaging problem on our hands that is destroying lives. Perhaps even more importantly, it reaches out to the young victims of bullying and let’s them know that they’re not alone and that their treatment is neither normal nor right.

A good example is Alex, a basically sweet kid who was born prematurely, is small for his age, looks a little different than other kids and struggles with socializing. He’d been tortured for so long he took it for granted. He treated the other kids’ behavior as a normal part of life and rarely complained to his parents who are ultimately devastated when they finally see video of the harsh treatment he receives every day on the bus. There are millions of kids like Alex who need to know that what they’re enduring is not right and this documentary is for them.

While the evidence is sad and horrifying, Bully is full of hope too as it documents the growing of an entire movement where parents and students are gathering together in support and to spread the word that the violence needs to stop. By highlighting a problem that isn’t well understood even by the victims and by showing that there is a way out, Bully is a must-see for teenagers, teachers, school administrators and parents.

Check out LiC’s interview with director Lee Hirsch here.

4 Responses to “Bully (2012)”

  1. Hirsch will be appearing tonight for a Q & A at the Angelika Film Center after the 7:00 P.M., and I have tickets. I will certainly weight what you say about the film coming off as more of an expose than an indictment, and will re-visit this exceedingly focused piece again.

  2. I look forward to getting your perspective as a teacher on some of the hapless administration official on display in the film. I judge them pretty harshly, but seeing this sort of thing on the ground level, you might have a different perspective.

  3. Craig, as I mentioned on the WEEKEND FORECAST thread I thought the focus in this film was limited to a certain geographic and social statistic, while some unanswered questions remain as to the actual bullying and the psychological effects. The problem is shown here, but never really explored. Only the final solidarity rings emotionally resonant, but the reasons for some of the lamentable actions are never examined. It’s a fair to good documentary, but a shell of what it could have been.

    I do think the indifference of the administrators is not a wrong-headed insight, though as even Hirsch asserts, some seem to have their hands tied. But either way it is inexcusable.

    ***

  4. I struggled too at first with the lack of context in the film and the lack of “answers” but I think the film works in other important ways. When the subject comes up, most people just kind of brush it off. Most of us have experienced or witnessed some kind of bullying growing up and it just seems like a fact of life, but Bully exposes it for something much worse.

    I think of kids like Alex who just sit there and take it and maybe this movie will show them if nothing else that they’re not alone. That’s enough for me.

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