With a wallop of an opening that shows two bereaved parents standing by the gravestone of their deceased son, Bully wastes no time getting to the heart of its subject matter and convincing us that something has to change. Seventeen-year-old Tyler Long and 11-year-old Ty Smalley committed suicide after being bullied and are two of five disquieting cases director Lee Hirsch chronicles in order to stoke concern about a “national crisis.” But for a film that seems so eager to be part of a growing debate, the documentary, while emotionally substantial, doesn’t take in a wide enough sample of the population, limiting its coverage to cases east of Tuttle, Oklahoma (and no urban areas), a small range of socioeconomic backgrounds, and only two races (four white, one black). Is this really what “13 million kids [who] will be bullied in the U.S. this year,” as the film tells us, look like in the 21st century? Because Bully‘s release comes opportunely at a cultural tipping point (when Dharun Ravi’s conviction is considered a “watershed,” when even Barack Obama has come out to say he was bullied as a kid, and corporations like Disney have released anti-bullying videos), the doc carries a responsibility beyond making Harvey Weinstein more money; it needs to be more to more people.
Bully‘s approach to its subject is to let the stories speak for themselves, without commentary. Over a seat on a bus, the fly-on-the-wall camera glimpses gut-wrenching scenes of the film’s main focus, 12-year-old Alex, as he’s verbally and physically abused by kids who give him the nickname “Fish Face.” We tag along with brassy 16-year-old Kelby and her girlfriend and their friends as Kelby shares with the camera stories of what it’s like being a lesbian in Tuttle: being purposely hit by a car, fighting back against bullies, and trying to change the small minds that ostracize her. Meanwhile, 14-year-old Ja’Maya finds herself in juvie for threatening her taunters with her mother’s gun. We also hear from the parents of these kids, but Bully never ventures to the other side to hear from those inflicting all this suffering, leaving us moved by poignant scenes of victims’ shattered lives, but, for reasons unclear, keeping the bullies themselves largely out of our reach. If the film suggests any blame, however, it’s the embarrassingly inadequate school system, an argument that’s only partially true, but one that’s bolstered by remarkable footage of phony administrators at a Sioux City, Iowa school bullshitting Alex’s parents and resolving conflict between students by forcing them to shake hands.
The pervasiveness of bullying in our culture is undeniable, and it’s visible even in movies released this month. In 21 Jump Street, a film in which the reversal of traditional high school popularity feels like a fantastical Hollywood reaction against bullying, Channing Tatum finds out that, unlike in the ‘80s, it’s no longer cool to be the bully, and in The Hunger Games, besides satirizing the lowest-common-denominator tele-cultural landscape, adolescent-on-adolescent violence is recalibrated into a death sport. What’s exciting about Bully is that it takes bullying head on, promising something more serious, politically charged, and honest. But because the film isn’t exactly instructive, all it can offer the children who signed petitions so the MPAA would lower the film’s R rating so they can see it (the Weinstein Company is releasing the film unrated), is solace in numbers, the feeling that they’re not alone.