Bully (2012)Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 04/12/12 17:44:16
Thanks to a recent series of well-publicized news stories from throughout the country about kids being mercilessly and often brutally bullied by classmates--sometimes to the point of suicide--for the crime of being slightly different than the rest of the pack and for the equally well-publicized battle between The Weinstein Company and the dopes at the MPAA when the latter, in their unerring wisdom, gave the film an "R" rating in the hopes of protecting young and impressionable viewers from hearing the word "fuck" two or three times spoken by kids their age, "Bully" is now arriving in theaters with levels of hype and anticipation that most films--let alone mere documentaries--would kill to have. Because it is a film that deals with such serious and emotionally charged subject matter, it would seem that only a churl or an outright ogre would dare to say anything bad about something so sincere and well-meaning. Alas, I guess that I have to step into that role because for all of its good intentions, this is a maddeningly unfocused work that squanders a potentially powerful subject with a half-hearted approach that hardly does it justice.The film follows the stories of a number of kids in Mississippi, Oklahoma and Georgia who are all targets of bullying. Two of the kids have already committed suicide as the film opens and their stories are recounted through the eyes of grieving family members as they attempt to bring about the kind of change that will ensure that others will hopefully never have to feel their pain. Another is a quirky kid who might one day grow up to be the focus of a Wes Anderson movie but who now finds himself bullied on such a regular basis that it has become the new normal for him as he refers to his tormentors as his friends because the alternative is too depressing to consider. Another is a athletic teen whose promising future in basketball is scuttled when she comes out as a lesbian and finds herself ostracized not only by her teammates and classmates but by nearly everyone in the small town she lives in. In one especially astonishing case, one girl who has been picked on for a long time finally snaps and retaliates by pulling a gun on her tormentors on the school bus and finds herself in juvenile detention facing 44 felony counts when we first meet her.
One of the reasons that these kids, and many others like them, are forced to suffer like this is because the teachers and administrators who should be putting a stop to such crap are either unwilling or unable to recognize that there is a problem in the first place. Despite all the acts of bullying captured on film here, the moments that will most likely enrage viewers the most involve an exceptionally clueless school administrator with her head perpetually in the sand. At one point, she attempts to force a reconciliation between a bully and his victim and winds up chastising the victim when he points out that no, a meaningless handshake will not be satisfactory and at another, she informs parents who complain about their kid being repeatedly pushed around on the bus, she dismisses their claims and assures them that when she has ridden that particular route, all the kids have been "good as gold." If "Bully" does nothing else, I can only hope that the onslaught of negative publicity that her appearance here inspires causes her to lose her job and leads her into a profession that she is infinitely more qualified to perform. Based on the core competency she displays here, that would pretty much limit her to dishing up Frisco Burgers at the local Hardee's franchise (but not the good one, of course).
The trouble with "Bully" is that it doesn't really do much of anything else. Director Lee Hirsch has many of the elements that are required for a documentary--a timely subject matter, potentially interesting character and narrative arcs and, perhaps most importantly, plenty of astounding and heart-tugging moments captured by his cameras that will alternately enrage and horrify most viewers while perhaps forcing them to relive painful memories of their own dealings with childhood bullies. The trouble is that by following so many different students and their individual (though depressingly similar) traumas, it becomes difficult to truly get invested in any one story because as soon as we do, we get jerked away to another storyline. The other problem with this approach is that in regards to many of the stories, there is always the niggling suspicion that there is more to the story than what the movie is revealing and a fuller account might have been more edifying in the long run. The biggest omission, however, is the film's unwillingness to challenge or investigate the bullies themselves. Maybe I am crazy but I think that if the film had interviewed some of the bullies to inquire as to why they behave as they do or spoke to their parents about their behavior, it might have gotten closer to the root of the problem than it does without said moments."Bully" does improve somewhat in its final scenes as the father of one of the dead children begins a campaign designed to expose the cruelty of bullying and to inspire kids to reach out to their seemingly misfit classmates instead of cutting them down to size with physical and emotional violence. Again, if the film had centered entirely around this program and revealed the stories of other victims as a part of the campaign along the way, it might have made for a better and more focused film than what is seen here. As it is, "Bully" is okay as a simple piece of advocacy filmmaking that will ring true with those who are already predisposed to understanding its message and which will most likely be completely ignored by those who could use seeing it the most. As a one-hour doc screening on HBO, it might have been worth a look but as a feature film, it is just too diffuse and one note to have much of an impact despite having its heart in the right place. Oh, and if you see that horrible administrator serving you a Frisco Burger anytime soon, please feel free to throw it right back in her smug little face for me.
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