Movie Review: Bully

Alex Libby of "Bully"

By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)

Bully examines five victims of peer abuse. Unfortunately, we’ll only be able to meet three of them … because the other two children are dead.

While we learn very few facts and statistics in this searing, cinéma vérité rendering of adolescent mistreatment, the one fact we do hear is that, according to the U.S. Department of Education, the estimated number of bullied kids comes in at over 13 million per year. Bullying that traverses class, race and geography, that might target ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, disability … or maybe nothing at all. Maybe, as in the case of 12-year-old Alex from Sioux City, Iowa, it’s the fact that his lips are bigger than most, earning him the nickname “Fish Face.”

Award-winning documentarian Lee Hirsch (Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony) and co-writer Cynthia Lowen were granted the unusual permission to film throughout the Sioux City School District for the 2009-2010 school year. As Hirsch states, “Our primary goal – which was also our primary challenge – was to actually capture bullying on camera … the only way to do this was to embed ourselves at a school, preferably for the length of the academic year.” Given that they were able to record the action on what looked to be a still camera (a Canon 5D Mark II), they soon became figurative flies on the wall. And subsequently experienced no disruption in their ability to bear videographic witness, both at the school and in the bully’s go-to venue of torture, that claustrophobic teen hotbed on wheels, a/k/a the iconic yellow school bus.

Because of the documentarians’ access, we get a firsthand look at the idiocy of the school administration as well, namely in the guise of the ineffective Assistant Principal Kim Lockwood. She patrols the halls, a weak mediator who often shrugs her shoulders, helplessly asking, “What can I do?” A scene in which she begs the bully and the victim to shake hands, followed by her extraordinarily ignorant belief that peace has now been restored, engendered hoots of derision from the audience.

While we’re happy to embrace this brief opportunity to exercise our collective rage at Lockwood, who represents an easy villain, the fact that no responsible adult will step up, either in Sioux City or elsewhere, is utterly confounding. Where are the take-charge administrators? What about the police? Who are these bullying kids? Why aren’t their parents contacted? And what with all the relentless, grotesque abuse dispensed by groups of kids on the school bus, why don’t the drivers pull over and stop it?


Other than Alex, we meet two teenage girls who both try to take a stand. In Mississippi, 14-year-old Ja’meya waves a loaded gun at her bullies, hoping to silence them but instead, winds up incarcerated in juvenile hall. In Oklahoma, 16-year-old Kelby faces an entire town that shuns her and her family because she’s a lesbian. She’s the bravest of the lot, stubbornly cheerful, steadfast in her belief that in order to effect change, she needs to stay put.

The greatest heartbreak comes from the frequently interspersed scenes of the parents whose children committed suicide; the two boys who’d been unable to face one more day at the hands of their school-age torturers. Tyler Long of Georgia and Ty Smalley of Oklahoma aren’t just victims … they’re inadvertent martyrs, their families taking up the cause to bring this issue front and center. The Longs organized a town meeting a mere five weeks after their son’s passing; Kirk Smalley learned how to work a computer for the first time in his life, and launched an anti-bullying grass roots organization called Stand for the Silent.

This isn’t your usual documentary, depicting modern ills, bringing in expert opinion, with the filmmaker attempting to momentarily shrug off his bias by taking a walk over the other side of the problem. And it’s not a project from the likes of a societally-curative Participant Media, with the end credits followed by a nice list of steps for us folks to do at home. Instead, Hirsch keeps his camera trained on the victims and their families, with a few side glances at a horribly broken system. He offers no answers whatsoever.

Hirsch leaves it up to the parents, the friends and the children themselves, as his camera records the assorted vigils of citizens united against bullying. But there’s a disturbing undertow that gnaws ever so slightly … are we not looking at a kind of vigilantism, a pushback that could be just as dangerous?

Welcome to the Wild, Wild West of America. Or, quoting Alex, “They punch me in the jaw, strangle me, knock books out of my hands, take things from me, sit on me. They push me so far … that I want to become the Bully.”

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Rating on a scale of 5 brilliant remedies to end all this for once and for all: 4

Release date: March 30, 2012 (ltd., wide release April 13, 2012)
Directed by: Lee Hirsch
Written by: Lee Hirsch and Cynthia Lowen
Featuring: Alex, Ja’Meya, Kelby, David Long, Tina Long, Kirk Smalley
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 94 minutes

 

About Kimberly Gadette

Film critic Kimberly Gadette, born and raised in movie-centric L.A., believes celluloid may very well be a part of her DNA. Having received her BA and MFA from UCLA's School of Theater, Film & Television, she spent many of her formative years as an actress (film, tv, commercials, stage) before she literally changed perspective, finding a whole new POV from the other side of the camera. You can find her last 450+ reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/kimberly-gadette/). Other than taking the occasional side trip to Cannes or Sundance, you can find her at the movies ... sitting in the dark as usual.

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