Unless you were a bully yourself, you have probably been bullied in school. The cruelty of children is common doctrine, no? What else is there to say? Plenty, according to Lee Hirsch’s new documentary which puts five families whose children have been bullied under the microscope.
Two of these families have children who’ve committed suicide because of the constant abuse they suffered at their schools. The film follows the families of Tyler Long in Georgia and Ty Smalley in Oklahoma as they attempt to rebuild their lives in the aftermath of their sons’ suicides. Bully also interweaves the stories of three students who are the ritual victims of bullying in their schools: 12-year-old Alex Libby, from Sioux City, Iowa, 14-year-old Ja’Meya from Yazoo County, Miss. and 16-year-old Kelby from Tuttle, Okla.
Camera crew in tow, Hirsch travels from small town to small town in search of the monstrosity that has driven teenagers like Long and Smalley to suicide. Through several candid interviews and a few alarming scenes of violence and verbal abuse, we see that the bullied are a painfully lonesome breed.
Ja’Meya was often surrounded by nine or 10 of her schoolmates who were teasing, threatening and throwing things at her before she saw it fit to bring her mother’s handgun to school to ward them off. Kelby, who tells us that she is constantly ridiculed by her classmates and teachers for her homosexuality, is forced to quit her basketball and softball teams.
In a conversation between Alex and his mother about the classmates who punch, tease and stab him with pencils every day while on the bus to school, Alex forlornly asks, “If not for them, what friends do I have?”
Bully does capture several cringe-worthy scenes depicting the cruelty inflicted upon these outcast teenagers, but we come away with the feeling that the antagonists of Hirsch’s film aren’t the bullies themselves, but the inactive adults in the schools’ administrative offices who repetitively shrug their shoulders and insensitively chant, “kids will be kids.” More tactical bureaucratic maneuvering is enlisted to avoid blame than any attempts to improve the security in these schools. One of the most aggravating scenes in the documentary occurs when Alex’s parents visit the school’s administrative offices to ask for a solution to their son’s daily abuse on the bus.
When the assistant principal is confronted with the issue, she is unwilling to accept that there is any problem at all. With a straight face she tells his parents that she’s ridden that particular bus and it is “good as gold.”
In a final note of administrative folly the Motion Picture Association of America originally gave Bully an R rating, making it unlikely that it would ever be seen by its target audience. Apparently it’s cool to celebrate kids killing kids (Hunger Games, rated PG-13), but bullying? Heavens, no! The rating has since been bumped down to a PG-13.
Although Bully ends on a hopeful note, with a network of families and friends of those affected gathering in a national campaign against bullying, I was still a little hungry for more.
Besides the few moments of frustrated dialogue between parents and school administrative officials, I would have liked to have seen somebody on screen react a little more confrontationally. I wanted to see a little more outrage at the Lord of the Flies-esque descent into savagery occurring under our very noses. But maybe that’s our job now.