{2jtab: Movie Review}

Bully - Movie Review

3 Stars

With its well-intentioned but woefully incomplete message, Lee Hirsch’s Bully makes its way into theaters brandishing the MPAA’s cursed “Unrated” badge. That’s a shame really as it means the film likely won’t get the school support it was meant to mobilize.

It’s a character-driven documentary that offers an intimate, unflinching look at how school bullying has affected the lives of five particular kids and their families. However, because it contains numerous F-words and other bad language, it was slapped with an R-rating, which the film’s distributors have decided to reject and instead release unrated. Sadly, despite its most recent flush of pub from the MPAA fallout, Bully could very easily fizzle out, never having touched those it could help the most.

The film’s biggest shortcoming becomes evident almost immediately as Hirsch takes his camera to America’s heartland where he filmed over the course of the 2009/2010 school year, latching on to the stories of the parents of two bullied children who killed themselves in Georgia and Oklahoma, and three other kids who are still in the fight in Sioux City, Iowa, Yazoo County Mississippi, and Tuttle, Oklahoma. Is schoolyard bullying a problem endemic to America’s mid-section? Or is the story here that the big-city scourge of bullying has now rotted its way to red-state America? The film doesn’t seem to be making the case for either. But that’s the feeling we get as these curiosities go unaddressed.

That’s not to say Bully still doesn’t pack an emotional punch. It does. Seeing 12-year-old Alex, an awkward, pensive first-year middle-schooler born prematurely and who now struggles socially, answer his mother when asked how the abuse makes him feel, “I’m starting to think I don’t feel anything any more,” is a truly heartbreaking thing.  And it’s disgusting to hear 16-year-old outed-lesbian, Kelby talk about her once blossoming basketball potential she was forced to abandon due to personal attacks by her classmates in the Bible-thumbing community of Tuttle Oklahoma.

The heart-wrenching first-hand anecdotes continue as we visit with the family of 17-year-old Tyler Long of Georgia, still mourning the loss of the son they tried to protect, and demand accountability from the school that failed him so miserably. And determined to prevent other children from suffering are Kirk and Laura Smalley, parents of 11 year-old Ty who killed himself after enduring bullying.

The stories go on and on and the depth and breadth of the bullying epidemic is hammered home as a title graphic points out that there are over 13 million American kids going through the same thing each year.

But the film misses another prime opportunity to piggyback that emphasis when it fails to offer the perspective from the bullies themselves. Presenting the problem is only half the battle in rallying troops to the charge. But to really understand the problem and forge a solution, it’s necessary to know the cause – and the victims aren’t the cause. Another grand opportunity falls flat following the film’s money shot that captures Alex being bullied on the school bus - Alex was, in fact, seen being punched, strangled, and stabbed with a pencil. We get nothing from the bully. Though Hirsch and his crew did turn in the film to the school’s administrators, whose reaction plays brilliantly into the film’s message when the school’s vice-principal responds to viewing the footage by saying, “Busses are notoriously bad places for a lot of kids.” Though she does offer to place Alex on a different bus, the offer loses its sincerity when she follows with, “I’ve ridden 54, and those kids are as good as gold.”

Hirsch’s crystal clear message with Bully is to not remain silent - to stand up and make a scene to authorities in charge of protecting our children. In fact, the film highlights Kirk and Laura Smalley’s anti-bullying organization Stand for the Silent, that underscores the high stakes of America’s bullying crisis. But the film’s intentions of motivating its audience to come off the sidelines to join their community’s work towards creating a positive school climate were unfortunately dealt a crippling blow by the MPAA’s insistence on the R rating, and by Hirsch’s refusal to stand up for the victims and offer solid, tangible solutions to the problem in the film.

Still, Bully is an emotionally powerful film that needs to be seen by as many people as possible.  As it is, it’s not the only answer, but it gets things moving in the right direction.

{2jtab: Film Details}

Bully - Movie ReviewMPAA Rating: this film has not been rated by the MPAA.
: Lee Hirsch
: Lee Hirsch, Cynthia Lowen
Cast: Alex; Je'Meya, Kelby; David Long; Tina Long
: Documentary
It's time to take a stand
Memorable Movie Quote: "I’ve ridden 54, and those kids are as good as gold."
The Weinstein Company
Official Site:
Release Date: April 6, 2012
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date:
No details available

Synopsis: This year, over 5 million American kids will be bullied at school, online, on the bus, at home, through their cell phones and on the streets of their towns, making it the most common form of violence young people in this country experience. The Bully Project is the first feature documentary film to show how we've all been affected by bullying, whether we've been victims, perpetrators or stood silent witness. The world we inhabit as adults begins on the playground. The Bully Project opens on the first day of school. For the more than 5 million kids who'll be bullied this year in the United States, it's a day filled with more anxiety and foreboding than excitement. As the sun rises and school busses across the country overflow with backpacks, brass instruments and the rambunctious sounds of raging hormones, this is a ride into the unknown. For a lot of kids, the only thing that's certain is that this year...

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