Bully– Movie Review
Bully has already succeeded as a documentary, storming out of the art houses and reviving the national conversation about bullying, intolerance, and suicide among school-aged children. But like much issue-driven filmmaking, Bully may address an important issue in an often engaging way, but sometimes sacrifices complexity and depth for simple preaching.
Bully follows several families as they grapple with school bullying and its sometimes severe effects. The most central people are the families of Tyler Long and Ty Smalley, two students who killed themselves after suffering intense bullying (Ty was only 11); and Alex, an isolated teen in Iowa who is the target of similar attacks. Others profiled include Kelby, a teenage lesbian in Oklahoma whose supportive parents are shocked by the intolerance they meet; and Ja’Maya, who faces decades in prison for bringing a gun on to the school bus to confront bullies.
The high number of separate families and plots can be frustrating, as we never get too close to any of these complex young people and their loved ones; they are kept at a distance, as if to preserve them as martyr-like ideals and innocents.
Strangely, the film includes not a single substantive profile or interview with an alleged “bully.” I understand that profiling a young child accused of bullying could dangerously open up that child to public backlash; but the inability to find a way around this problem (Anonymous interviews? Former bullies?) leaves a glaring omission at the very heart of the film.
Those who think “bullying” is an invented problem will definitiely learn something; but anyone will appreciate the film as a blistering critique of official responses to bullying, especially in the tendency to punish the victim and let the aggressor get away. While my sympathies almost always lie with the overworked and underappreciated teachers and administrators of our nation’s schools, Bully reveals some ineptitude that seems beyond excuse.
One Sioux City assistant principal at Alex’s school becomes a de facto villain for her cheery denial in the face of bullying. She understandably laments that she has no silver bullet to end kids being mean to each other. But she proceeds to punish a victim of bullying for refusing to shake his tormentor’s hand; the offending boy gets to walk away victorious after smugly and intimidatingly offering his hand to his victim. The same women and her colleagues repeatedly blame victims for not reporting even a single incident (the bullied students always reply that nothing was done the last time they reported problems). She incredulously tells Alex’s mother that the student’s bus ride is “good as gold,” while the filmmaker has presented footage of others beating him on the ride.
Bully will hopefully inspire dialogue, but provides few answers. Rallies and anti-bullying promises from students will quickly fade; constant discipline could turn schools into police states. The bullies themselves cannot be ignored, and a closer look might show that they also have meaningful stories.
Did you see Bully? What did you think?