Directed by: Lee Hirsch.
Bullying has reached epidemic proportions in America – and around the world. I have lost count of how many stories there have been in the last year where a teenager has ended their own life just to get out from underneath the constant harassment and torment they go through at school – or on the internet. The problem is not just the bullies themselves – but the adults around them who do nothing. `Kids will be kids`, `They have to learn to deal with it themselves` are among the things most often said. School administrators complain their hands are tied – there is nothing they can do, because they simply do not have the evidence. Bullies are not stupid – they aren’t going to break someone’s arm, or leave them bloody. But the constant harassment, threats and intimidation can be far worse than the physical injuries sustained.
What the new documentary Bully succeeds at doing is putting a human face, not on the bullies, but the victims. You do see a few bullies – mainly in passing on the bus tormenting one of the subjects, Alex, of the documentary, or most memorably in a scene where a clueless vice principal makes two boys shake hands. One kid immediately sticks out his hand with a smile on his face, the other refuses, and gets a lecture from the principal. The boy tries to explain – that other boy is his tormenter, so no, he doesn’t want to shake his hand, at which point the vice principal, amazingly, tells the kid that he’s just like his tormentor – because by not shaking his hand, he is hurting his feelings, just like his feelings are hurt whenever the boy torments him – which appears to be daily. But hey, boys will be boys.
The stories that the victims of bullying in the movie tell are heartbreaking. There is Alex, who is a little strange to be sure, but also sweet, but whose bus ride every day is caught on hidden camera, and the result fairly shocking – getting punched, stabbed with pencils, having his head slammed into the seat, being called countless names and suffering other abuse. The bus driver doesn’t pay attention, and the other students cheer it on. Then there is Kelby, who was once a popular female athlete, who came out as gay, and immediately found herself ostracized from her small Oklahoma town. And Ja Meya, who was so distraught at constantly being bullied on the bus that she does the unthinkable – and brings a gun on the bus, and although she doesn’t fire a shot, is still in deep legal trouble. What she did was wrong – incredibly wrong – but yet you can see why she did it. There are also a few heartbreaking stories from the parents of teens who killed themselves as a result of bullying – and their efforts to have someone, anyone, listen to them – because the schools certainly do not care.
Bully is not a great documentary, but it a heartbreaking one. I would have preferred if they had been able to talk to any of the bullies at some point, and explored the causes of bullying. Perhaps none wanted to participate. The movie is most effective in its first hour when it tells the stories of the victims of bullying, and how they get through day after day. The last half hour lays it on a little thick – and advocates a wonderful idea in theory – that everyone needs to respect each other – that has no chance of working in the real world. And yet, I hope Bully does have an impact in the real world – that the bullied will realize that they are not alone, and they can get through it, and the bullies see what they are actually do to their victims – and that it isn’t funny, or just a joke. And that perhaps schools will start to this seriously, so more kids do not feel so hopeless that they take their own lives. O hope this movie helps that – but I have a feeling it won’t.