There are a hundred reasons why “Bully” is a good film instead of a great one, but Lee Hirsch’s blood-boiling documentary will very likely end up doing more than its share of good in this world.
However sentimental that may sound, this is a film quite literally for everyone and anyone: the bullied, the victimizer or the bystander who could use a reminder (as Arthur Miller wrote in “All My Sons”) that there’s a universe of people outside, and we’re responsible to it.
So many kids of a vulnerable age (any age, in other words) navigate all three of those broadly defined roles — bully, bullied and bystander — at different times, in varying, charged situations at school, on the playground, wherever.
The blunt force of Hirsch’s film has less to do with grotesque cruelty and tragic consequences (though the lives revealed on screen contain plenty of both) and more to do with the sinister casual quality of so much bullying, too quickly and too often shrugged off by kids and adults as “part of growing up.”
The movie calls foul on that shrug-it-off attitude. In one scene, a preteen student on a Sioux City, Iowa, school bus tells 12-year-old Alex Libby, “I’ll break your Adam’s apple,” and Alex is punched and jabbed with a pencil and then told “I will (expletive) end you” in language aping countless first-person shooter games and action movies. When this maddening sequence is caught on camera in “Bully” without any reality-show self-consciousness or phony drama, you know Hirsch has done his job. Your blood boils. You think: Enough.
Hirsch toggles between the stories of five kids across 94 minutes. In Tuttle, Okla., we meet 16-year-old Kelby Johnson, openly gay with a tight circle of friends. Ja’Meya Jackson, in Yazoo County, Miss., pulled a loaded gun on a bus full of schoolmates; she’d had enough of her classmates’ teasing and worse, she later told police. The gun never went off, but she quickly became a simple headline and a de facto killer. In “Bully,” however, she is assessed by filmmaker Hirsch as a misunderstood news story — a victim more than a perp.
Two other life stories in “Bully” are told through surviving parents. Seventeen-year-old Tyler Long of Murray County, Ga., killed himself after suffering the torments of his classmates. (Unacknowledged by the film, accounts differ on how direct the link was between his victimization at the hands of bullies and his suicide.) Tyler’s parents, like those of the late 11-year-old Ty Smalley, became activists in the wake of their unfillable loss. Kirk and Laura Smalley formed an organization known as Stand for the Silent, whose vigils are glimpsed in “Bully” in the most public-service-oriented portions of the film.
The documentary is wider than it is deep, by choice. It most fully comes to life while chronicling the 2009-2010 school year, often difficult to watch, in the life of Alex (at East Middle School in Sioux City). The most enraging sequence, even more than the school bus footage, brings Alex’s parents into the office of assistant principal Kim Lockwood to discuss their withdrawn, hurting son’s situation. Lockwood voices a few niceties of concern before categorizing Alex’s plight as Just One Of Those Things, and delivering the highest possible approval rating of her kids on the bus: “Good as gold.”
There’s a significant lapse in “Bully.” We rarely hear from any of the tormentors. The film inadvertently paints bullying behavior as shadowy and ultimately unknowable. The film could’ve used the amplitude of “The Interrupters,” for instance, which forced the audience to question its own perceptions about the people behind the acts of violence and hatred. Also, Hirsch’s basic visual strategy — keep the subject in focus and artfully fuzz out the background — resembles one too many 30-second TV ads.
These are limitations, but the film transcends them. It also transcends its own ratings controversy. The film’s distributor, The Weinstein Co., recently submitted a slightly edited version of “Bully” to appease the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings board. The MPAA board initially gave the documentary a ridiculous, misguided R rating. Three missing F-words later, voila: PG-13, which means “Bully” can be now shown to a wider audience, with less interference in middle and high school contexts.
All good. The best Hirsch’s film can do, in the end, is remind us that bullying means more than we admit, and its effects aren’t always immediately clear, even to loved ones.
As the father of the late Tyler Long says on camera: “Did he ever come home with blood running down his face? No.”