‘Bully’ Documentary Pushes Boundaries

Tyler Long from Murray County Georgia was only 17 years old when he took his own life in 2009.

Many of us skimmed the headlines of this tragedy, felt a surge of empathy and then went about our day. The underlying perpetrator: bullies.

School is often considered as a safe haven, a place where children learn the skills they need to function effectively in the real world. However, for an increasing number of adolescents, this conception could not be further from the truth. School can instead become a place of terror in which adolescents feel threatened both mentally and physically.

Once considered a rite of passage, bullying has long been considered to be a normal part of growing up.

What many people do not realize is that this complacent “kids will be kids” attitude fuels rather than solves the problem. It isn’t until a tragedy occurs— such as Tyler’s suicide— that people begin to look, listen and care.

Inspired by the Long’s loss as well as many other similarly situated families, “Bully” is an emotionally charged documentary that makes an “in your face” attempt to bring awareness to the growing epidemic of bullying.

In the film, director Lee Hirsch profiles various victims in hopes of appealing to a wider range of demographics. Unfortunately, the film’s lack of focus weakens its message.

With that being said, the mixture of characters does add some depth to the film. Alex, a lanky loner from Iowa, walks through the school halls with an inevitable target on his back. He is alienated and outright tortured by his peers who punch, stab and verbally abuse him. This doesn’t, however, completely break Alex’s spirits, as he is still able to come home and tease his younger siblings.

Ja’Meya is an honor student from Mississippi who after enduring peer abuse at school decides to bring a gun onto the bus as a scare tactic.

Even though, at first blush, this story appears to be compelling, it instead comes off as contrived.

Rather than providing a behind-the-scenes look at the entire scenario, the film instead focuses solely on Ja’Meya’s mother’s take on the situation.

In light of its one-sidedness, Ja’Meya’s story is still able to connect the problem of bullying with the even more disturbing phenomenon of school shootings. Then there is the poignant story of Kelby, the androgynous 16 year-old whose life drastically changed when she announced her homosexual orientation to her classmates.

Living in the Bible Belt of Oklahoma, Kelby is subjected to abuse by not only her contemporaries but also by her supposed educators, particularly a teacher whose role call of “boys, girls, and Kelby” is gut-wrenching.

Perhaps one of the most horrifying aspects of the film is the fact that the school officials do little, if anything, to prevent the escalation of this problem.

In fact, the school faculty’s actions and responses are so ludicrous that if one weren’t in tears, their solutions would be almost comical. The assistant principal of Alex’s school namely comes to mind. Her total denial of the existence of bullying coupled with her fake smile and her “let’s shake hands and make up” attitude is disturbing, to say the least.

This documentary should be applauded for attempting to proactively deal with a complex subject matter.

However, it seems as though Hirsch tried to cover too much ground in too little time.
Although Alex appears to be the star of the film, Hirsch ineffectively weaves in and out of characters’ stories, making the plot at times difficult and confusing to follow. Had the film focused on fewer characters with more raw footage similar to that of Alex’s, the message would have been more compelling.

Secondly, the film neglects to address bullying from a young female’s perspective. Even though there are two female adolescents profiled, both experiences are simply narrated. This glaring omission alienates a young female audience and makes bullying seem like a masculine phenomenon that is strictly dominated by violence.

Overall, “Bully” is a highly controversial film whose content will not sit well with many viewers. Initially rated “R” because of its violence and language, “Bully’s” rating was changed to “PG-13” to ensure viewing by its targeted audience.

Although it is at times difficult to watch, “Bully” is a film that provides the dialogue needed for societal change.

— Contact Deana Bellen.