Bully (The Weinstein Company, PG-13)


film bully_75Bully accurately depicts life in public school as I remember it, and surely as it still is today.



film bully_500

There are a lot of ways to go about writing a review of Lee Hirsch’s new, much-talked-about documentary Bully, and while they’re all valid, I’m afraid a lot of them brazenly ignore the message the film brings with it. One way to look at it—presumably the ideal way (or at least the way the filmmakers intended)—is to watch the film and think about how our culture cultivates bullies, the effects that this bully factory has on everyone, and what we can do to try to put an end to it. Another way to approach it is to view it in the context of the ongoing controversy regarding the MPAA’s rating of the film. And a final angle to take is the fact that we are, of course, watching a movie—important though the message might be, some baggage comes along with the whole movie thing.

Prior to all of the recent press, Bully played at last November’s St. Louis International Film Festival under the title The Bully Project, and while I wasn’t able to catch it there, I heard many glowing reports from people who did. This would presumably have been a more ideal way to view the film, before its overall power was clouded. Bully is exactly what it sounds like—a documentary about bullied children—and it spreads its running time over kids presently bullied, parents of bullied children, administrators dealing with bullies, and kids who may no longer be dealing with active bullying, but still are very much dealing with the fallout it has had on their lives. Of the five or so stories the film follows, it devotes the most time to 13-year-old Alex Hopkins, who is the only student we see being bullied live—the documentary crew was there to film it as it was happening (see Approach #3). Alex is a likeable fellow and it’s easy to see yourself in him and get on his side; I was never particularly bullied in my childhood, but still his experiences as depicted here remind me both of things I experienced and those I saw others endure. Elsewhere we have Kelby, a 16-year-old out lesbian in Oklahoma; Ja’Meya, who crossed a line in standing up to her bullies; and an assortment of other students, parents, and school administrators.

While the film seems to be missing the point, on the other hand, it’s become such a thing that it borders on irresponsible to not at least quickly address the issue with the MPAA. I’m assuming you know already that they slapped the film with an R rating and even on appeal (from Harvey Weinstein, always powerful in the industry and in his ability to get what he wants) upheld it. Weinstein opted to release it unrated instead of with an R rating, on the logic that seeing this film at a young age could really make a difference in our youth. (For the record, Harvey has a strong tendency toward self-aggrandizement, but he’s often right, as he is here.) After a week or two of the film’s limited release, he and the MPAA reached a compromise, wherein they would bleep a few utterances of the word “fuck” in the movie but keep other key scenes unadulterated, and release the film with a PG-13.

Okay, so in seeing the film, it’s hard to imagine anyone wondering why the MPAA would assign it an R rating: People say “fuck” quite a lot of the time, and some of the imagery is awfully brutal and soul-crushing. So while technically their rating can be justified, who exactly do they think they’re protecting? Bully accurately depicts life in public school as I remember it, and surely as it still is today. It’s insulting to think that you’re helping anyone by keeping children from seeing a film that, in some cases, will offer either condolences for or criticism to their current lifestyle, and to help them see the bigger picture. The bottom line is that you don’t want to get me started on a rant against the MPAA as it could go on forever, but suffice it to say that they can go fuck themselves; I have no use for them and you shouldn’t, either.

Finally, it’s easy while watching Bully to forget the mechanics of making a movie, which in this particular case seems to have a strong bearing on what we’re seeing. As you’re watching many of these scenes, remember that there’s a camera stuck in people’s faces as it’s going on. (I wondered at several points if the bullies might have been specifically showing off for the cameras.) Remember that any scene in which young Alex is mentally or physically abused makes for more memorable cinema, and that the filmmakers could have stepped in at any point (they eventually do, though some would argue they only did once they got the footage that they needed, and not when it was best for Alex). Remember that this film can’t begin to tell the whole story.

That said, Bully makes a pretty valiant effort at being fair and moving. The bullies themselves aren’t made out to be the bad guys so much as the school administrators who refuse to deal with—or, in some cases, even acknowledge—the problem. There are glimpses here of the bullying food chain—in reality, most kids are both bullied by those stronger than them and bully those weaker, and a lot of the time the bullies aren’t peers, but instead are parents, siblings, teachers, and other so-called “protectors”—but I kind of wish there had been a deeper exploration of that mechanic.

One final, random thought in an already schizophrenic review: From time to time, I recommend seeing a movie in either as empty or as full an auditorium as possible. Bully is a full-auditorium one; go see it on Friday or Saturday night on opening weekend, and prepare for the experience of mass anger and disillusionment. Even if you personally find fault with the film, it’ll be worth going for the audience reaction alone. | Pete Timmermann

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