Family Movie Review: Bully (PG-13)


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MPAA Rating: PG-13     Length: 99 min

Appropriate for ages 13+. “Bully” is likely to cut close to the bone for any viewer, and closer still for any child who has experienced, or is experiencing, bullying. Some youngsters may also be disturbed or confused by the subject of suicide. The physical abuse depicted—shoving, punching, and even some strangling—is shocking, not for its intensity but for its authenticity. The film was originally rated R for “some language”. After an edit that allowed it to carry a PG-13 rating, it still has some language, including a couple f-words, spoken by children threatening and tormenting their peers. If anything, the profanity drives home the nastiness of the bullies’ behavior—it unequivocally belongs where it is. 

With “Bully”, documentarian Lee Hirsch sheds some harsh, discomfiting light on an insidious issue, chronicling the stories of families whose lives have been upended by casual cruelty in the supposedly safe environment of schools.

By Jared Peterson

The subject touches us all. We’ve all known a bully, or seen one, or been one. Hirsch posits that bullying, often considered an inevitable and largely harmless aspect of youth, is now too pervasive and too costly to ignore.

Beyond the physical abuse, he starkly shows that the psychological toll of bullying can be fatal. After a torturous adolescence full of vicious taunts and pranks, 17-year-old Tyler Long hanged himself in his closet. Another Tyler, Tyler Smalley, was only 11 when he took his own life. Both boys’ families have since devoted their lives to saving others’ children from similar fates. The camera lingers on faces that often look like they’ve been to war.

Other lives are spared but scarred. When 16-year-old Kelby came out as a lesbian, the tiny town of Tuttle, Oklahoma, reacted quickly and systematically. She was shut out by schoolmates, teachers, virtually the entire town. Luckily, Kelby is loved and supported by her parents, and by a group of loyal and (for Oklahoma) diverse friends—some gay, most straight, but all with an easygoing acceptance of one another. Another victim, Ja’Meya, from Yazoo County, Mississippi, was pushed to the brink by repeated bullying and brandished her mother’s handgun at her tormentors on the bus. No shots were fired, but you can’t say no one was hurt. We first meet Ja’Meya, 14 years old, in a juvenile institution, awaiting a ruling on her legal fate.

In the publicity surrounding “Bully”, including the public wrangling about its content and rating, the face of the film has been that of 12-year-old Alex Libby. It would be disingenuous to deny that Alex has an oddness about him that makes him perhaps a stereotypical target for bullies. He is sometimes slow to pick up on social cues that might guide other children to either steer clear or strike back. Instead, he quietly absorbs the brutal words and blows of several fellow students. The harshest scene of the film (and a main focus of the ratings board deliberations) takes place on the school bus, which in this context takes on a sinister atmosphere—a clattering, mobile prison yard where lumbering brutes can prey on the weak with impunity. The abuse Alex endures is so harsh that the documentarian felt compelled to alert parents and school officials.

Scenes from Alex’s home life provide context that points up some of the complexities of the issue. Alex’s mother is concerned about his safety, but also worried about the implications of his blunted reactions to the bullying. His father is more frustrated, believing Alex is allowing himself to be a doormat. In seeing some familiar sibling rivalry between Alex and his sister, as they tease and wrestle with each other, we have cause to further examine the true nature of bullying.

Of course, the loudest and thorniest question “Bully” raises is “Who is responsible?” Besides the bullies themselves, the closest thing to a villain in the film is an assistant principal at Alex’s school, a woman so obtuse and ineffectual it beggars belief. The scene where Alex’s parents meet with her would be darkly hilarious if it weren’t almost sickening. The administrator deflects their concerns, cooing at them with nonsensical platitudes and increasingly bizarre non-sequiturs about her own family. Whether she’s pathological or out of touch—or simply thrown off by the cameras—it’s clear she is utterly out of her depth. Her cluelessness is as sad as it is infuriating. The reality is that school officials’ often have their hands tied by confusing or conflicting policies; they cannot be the only arbiters of students’ actions. As easy as it would be to paint the woman as a force of evil, her furrowed brow and hollow smile mask the tragic truth that she has simply no idea what to do.

Lee Hirsch, the film’s director, shifts among the different stories and settings, building the case that bullying is both epidemic and highly personal. By necessity, Hirsch must point his camera somewhere, which unfortunately leaves some angles unexplored. The film directs its attention mostly toward the American Midwest, with no attempt to depict the issue as it manifests in urban environments or racially and socioeconomically diverse districts. It also makes no effort to confront or address the ones doing the bullying. The danger in this last omission is that the audience might be tempted to lapse into complacent indignation, thinking of bullying as a monolithic evil rather than a set of behaviors with causes and complexities all their own.

For all its considerable and powerful insights, “Bully” offers few comforts and fewer answers. The film concludes with footage of rallies held across the country, exhorting children and parents to band together to “Stand Up to Bullying.” But lasting solutions to this scourge will likely be as diverse as the communities, the victims, and the aggressors involved. Just as no one film is capable of depicting the entire reality of bullying, no one law will be able to stop it cold. Though discouraging, abandoning a “silver bullet” mentality will be vital to the ongoing conversations that hopefully ensue from “Bully’s” wider release.