*** (out of 5)
April 13, 2012
Directed by: Lee Hirsh
BY KEVIN CARR
Listen to Kevin’s radio review…
In many ways, the controversy and buzz surrounding the new film “Bully” from the Weinstein Company is greater than the film itself. There’s the whole MPAA ratings issue, which was completely manufactured by Harvey Weinstein as a not-so-subtle publicity stunt. (For those of you questioning this, realize that Weinstein knew damn well that the movie would get an R rating not just for six uses of the f-word, but the use of the word in association with “mother” in the first 15 minutes.)
The movie also hits on the latest activism craze that has caught hold of America. Don’t get me wrong… bullying sucks, and bullies are assholes. I was bullied by several kids in school myself, so I know how much it sucks to be on the receiving end of that nonsense.
However, bullying is nothing new. It’s been around since the dawn of man and exists to some degree in every culture. That’s not to say that it shouldn’t be curtailed, especially at a school, but it’s not an epidemic. After all, an epidemic suggests that it’s happening more often now, and I doubt that’s the case. It’s just gotten more press.
So activist filmmaker Lee Hirsh, who himself was bullied as a kid, set out to make this documentary to help stop bullying. The film attempts this by profiling several kids in middle America who are victims of bullying. Two of the subjects include high-profile news cases of students who committed suicide in response to this behavior.
The main subject, the poster child now for bullying if you will, is a middle school kid named Alex. What happens to Alex is tough to watch. He’s physically and verbally abused by the kids on his bus and at school. More over, the incompetent vice principal does very little to stop such behavior even when faced with photographic evidence.
Additional bully victims include a high school lesbian from the Oklahoma Bible Belt and an African American teenage girl who brought a gun onto a school bus to threaten her bullies.
These cases are tragic, but they’re also part of the problem with this film. Where Hirsh is trying to represent how terrible bullying can be, he shoots himself in the foot by going after the most extreme and stereotypical cases. It’s easy to look at Alex’s case and see him as a caricature. He’s socially awkward, scrawny and the dictionary definition of a nerdy looking kid. Additionally, the communication skills that he and his family have are sorely lacking, which might be a bigger statement on how ill equipped they are to handle him and his four siblings.
Alex’s case exemplifies the daisy chain of failures that go into helping him. From the poor communication at home to the runaround the family gets from the school when they actually try to stop this, Alex doesn’t stand a chance. And that’s a shame. My heart goes out to him and his family.
Unfortunately, we are also faced with several examples of bullying that have nothing to do with the schools. For example, early in the film, Alex is bullied and threatened at the bus stop by two other kids. Sadly, there’s nothing the school can do in that situation. It doesn’t happen on school property. He isn’t assaulted, nor is he physically harmed. Still, the school is blamed.
But never the bullies.
Or the parents of the bullies.
And that’s the real problem, not with this film but also with the so-called “epidemic.” Hirsh is so eager to spotlight the extreme victims that he never addresses the seeds of bullying. He wants to stop bullying, and the subjects in the film even go as far to have candlelight vigils to honor the lives of bully victims who turned to suicide. Yet the bullies are never confronted. In fact, we rarely even see them.
In fact, when Alex is leaned on by the kids at school, there’s a distinct feeling that he’s doing so on purpose. I am reluctant to accuse director Hirsh of affecting the subjects of his documentary, but this is what happens in modern activist filmmaking. We have Michael Moore to thank for that one.
Every time the worst of the bullying happens, it’s right after Alex approaches his bullies and tries to talk to them. I concede that this could easily happen naturally, but when he purposely sits by one of them and asks, “You’re my buddy, right?” it just seems staged.
Had Hirsh talked to the bullies, or their parents, we might have had deeper insight into the problem. Or if he had not focused on the most extreme victims and showed average kids that everyone can identify with getting bullied, it might have been more impactful.
Alas, that’s not the case, and we’re left with a film that plays out as a tearjerker and a button pusher, but it offers no real solution than to stand up in symbolism against bullies. But that message falls on deaf ears since not only are these vigils sparsely populated, but they’re mostly parents and community members… and I didn’t see one damn bully in the bunch.
Finally, the movie treads on dangerous ground, which is something that concerned me several years ago when the bully suicides started being widely reported – does it send the right message?
After all, teen suicide happens, and I had some friends in my life who were both successes and failures at that. Were they bullied? Sure. Were their suicides and suicide attempts a result of bullying? Not necessarily.
But no matter the case, the last message we should be sending to troubled youths is that if you really want your voice to be heard and for people to find it in their heart to help you is to kill yourself.
Let’s not start a trend with this one.
Still, with all this said, I would recommend seeing “Bully,” and I recommend seeing it with your kids. At the very least, it can spark a worthwhile discussion.