Aside from an unexplained ad partnership with the world’s most terrible search engine, Bing, Lee Hirsch’s new documentary film Bully is getting the most attention for its restricted rating in the United States. The argument goes that this film should be seen by as many young people as possible in order to end the bullying epidemic.
This is flawed logic, however, as the acts of abuse on display in Bully are commonplace for the under-18 set. As the film demonstrates, it’s the adults — especially those working in schools — who don’t have a fucking clue what’s going on. If anything, this incredibly bleak film should be required viewing for anyone who works with children.
The first talking head in the film is David Long, the father of a socially awkward boy named Tyler. We get to see Tyler grow up, bond with his family, make friends. Then we get to see the area of the house where Tyler hung himself, which is now the Long family’s office to campaign against bullying.
Yes, that’s how the film starts. What follows is over an hour of kind, lighthearted kids who are followed through their endless tribulations. A young lesbian girl is living through hell in her small southern town. A girl who finally snapped and pulled a gun on her attackers is sequestered in juvenile detention. The best friend of an 11-year-old boy who took his own life is interviewed at their secret club house.
Much of the film is centred on Alex, a lanky, socially awkward kid with enlarged facial features (the seemingly endless supply of bullies in his school refer to him as “Fish Lips”). Alex wishes he could have a single friend, but his attempts to interact with others are met with punches, name-calling and threats of death. Then, he goes home and lies to his parents about what’s happening, explaining that he thinks the other kids are just joking around with him.
It gets so bad, in fact, that the filmmakers decide to intervene and show his parents some footage of those godawful bus trips and disastrous lunch breaks. Naturally upset, Alex’s parents meet with his principal, who is one of the best real-life villains I’ve seen in a while. Evading any responsibility, she denies any issues on the school bus and shows his parents a photograph of her newborn granddaughter.
That sort of manipulative conversation is representative of the filmmaker at times, too. Aside from the guaranteed emotional response from interviewing the families of suicide victims, Bully goes further with its intentional tear jerking. If there’s one sign of a manipulative filmmaker, it’s the appearance of a children’s choir, which takes on Wheatus’ one hit “Teenage Dirtbag” at the start of the film.
The other problem is the ending. Despite what ad campaigns will lead you to believe, the footage of anti-bullying rallies feels tacked on and inconsequential. Then again, the barrage of pain is set up so that the only logical ending to this film would be a revenge-driven high school shooting.
Critics who suggest that the issue is oversimplified are right, to a degree, but there’s no major analysis necessary when you’re watching children act like caged animals as their supervisors look on. Still, the film drudges up a lot of negativity but doesn’t really know what to do with it. In other words, Bully feels a lot more hopeless than intended. Yes, it’s an important film, but it’s more depressing than it is satisfying. You’ll leave the theatre bummed out and angry, and you most likely won’t know what to do about it.