In the pantheon of dumb decisions, the MPAA’s choice to slap Lee Hirsch’s “Bully” with an R rating deserves special recognition.
The documentary, which exposes the psychological destruction bullying causes in order to eliminate it from everyday school life, gained a lot of free press when the rating was announced. Giving “Bully” an R rating shuts out the demographic who could gain the most from the film – kids.
An organization designed to protect children blocks a film designed to help protect children, all over a few naughty words. What an asinine paradox.
Now that “Bully” is finally out in theaters, however, audiences can see the controversial film for what it really is: a powerful and moving documentary that demands attention.
The film follows several children and families impacted by bullying. For students like Alex, a 12-year-old from Iowa, and Kelby, a 16-year-old Oklahoma high school student, bullying is an everyday ordeal. Alex is punched and strangled on bus rides to and from school, and Kelby’s homosexuality makes her an object of ridicule for students and, shockingly, teachers alike.
Alex lingers around his bullies so much so that viewers might ask if he’s goading them for the film’s sake. That is, until he reveals that he spends time with them because he thinks they’re his friends. One of the saddest stories belongs to Kelby, who, despite her terrible experiences, is hopeful that she can create change in her small, Bible Belt town. After the year is over, though, nothing changes, and she’s forced to move to a new school.
While bullying is a present-moment problem for Alex and Kelby, other families are seen coping with its tragic aftermath. The film also follows the parents of 17-year-old Tyler Long and 11-year-old Ty Smalley, two children who committed suicide after being bullied, leaving their parents to seek out answers and, more importantly, change.
All of the stories told in “Bully” are emotionally devastating. Anyone who has experienced bullying is guaranteed to find themselves wiping tears from their eyes. Even those who’ve managed to get through school unscathed are susceptible.
It’s easy to say that the film works exclusively due to the emotionally-loaded subject matter. However, much of the credit must go to Hirsch, who gets intimate access into his subjects’ lives. Whether it’s a frustrating conversation between parents and school advisors or actual footage of Alex getting abused on the bus, Hirsch’s camera is there.
There are a few moments where some directorial flourishes get in the way of the heartbreaking stories being told, the main culprit Hirsch’s overindulgence in refocusing the camera. It’s an overly-cinematic touch; the subjects’ stories are more than enough.
However, when the movie is as intelligent and moving as “Bully,” this is a minor qualm. One of the film’s greatest achievements is the fact that, despite its strong anti-bullying stance, it never vilifies anyone. None of the bullies are individually identified or put on camera for embarrassment. Even the school officials, the closest thing to a definable antagonist, are given an even hand; they often seem late to the issue, but never due to a lack of effort.
If there’s anything the film is missing, it’s the perspective of an actual bully. Hirsch never gets into what really causes bullying, aside from a few passing remarks. Perhaps that would have opened up larger questions the film didn’t have time to fully address or, on the other hand, caused the film to succumb to the vilification it so artfully avoids.
It’s best not to get hung up on what “Bully” lacks and instead see what it does have: the potential to change children’s lives.