Here’s the problem with bullying, as Lee Hirsch delineates so brilliantly in his new documentary Bully: Half of the people reading this don’t even think bullying is a problem. “Kids will be kids,” they say. “Kids can be cruel.” “Bullying is a natural part of growing up.”
Parents of bullied kids are likewise unaware. Since the bullied kids are usually embarrassed, they tend not to tell their folks the extent of the torment. And when they do speak up, their ordeal is often trivialized—“smile more,” the parents might say. “Learn to defend yourself,” etc. etc.
School administrators are defensive about the subject, which carries the intimation that they are not protecting their charges. And to avoid potential liability, they want to shift the blame squarely back on the shoulders of the parents.
And so it goes. A perfect storm of inaction—with bullied kids paying the ultimate price.
Are there more teen suicides these days as a result of bullying? I don’t know. I suspect the problem has been under the radar for generations. But not anymore. Bullying is finally getting the attention as a serious social plague that it deserves, largely because of Dan Savage’s galvanizing “It Gets Better” campaign and now because of this film, which works both as a riveting documentary and as a cry for social justice. (The film’s original title was The Bully Project and when you go to its website, you can sign on to “join the movement”).
All I can say is thank goodness the Weinstein Company was able to negotiate that PG-13 rating. This is a film that needs to be seen by all children over 10—and their parents.
Bully had me in its emotional hooks from the opening scene—a home video of a small child playing and laughing with his father which then cuts to a close-up of the wrecked face of that father watching the video. You know, in that very moment that his son committed suicide. (You find out later that the boy hanged himself in his bedroom closet, after being bullied at school. )
Then we meet sweet, smart, hopelessly gawky Alex, above, an almost inevitable victim to his classmates’ brutality (he is nicknamed fishface). He hates school. “I like learning, but I have trouble making friends,” he says sadly. Even the kids who do let him hang around them are merely using him as a butt of jokes, a punching bag. “Those aren’t your real friends,” his father tells him. “If they’re not, what friends do I have?” Alex says, heartbreakingly.
We meet other kids, including the articulate Kelby, a lesbian teen growing up in a small town in Oklahoma who is ostracized not just by her classmates but by the entire bible-thumping community (she’s what the “It Gets Better” campaign was designed for. Once she gets to Barnard, or Vassar, or wherever she goes—she will be will a campus superstar).
We meet the parents of another bullied suicide victim—a couple of apparent country bumpkins who have now become righteous and eloquent activists for the cause.
We meet Ja’Meya, a 14 year old from Mississippi, who was so tormented by classmates, she brought a gun onto a school bus. (The school bus, because of its largely unsupervised nature, is ground zero for bullying).
One of the film’s saddest moments takes place toward the end, when a little boy who was best friends with one of the suicide victims shows the boy’s father their special fort in the woods. A jackrabbit hops by and the boy looks at it wistfully, remarking that he and his friend would’ve had so much fun chasing that rabbit.
It was at that moment that the tears I’d been choking back all film finally came rushing out. Bully shattered my heart into tiny little bits. The problem is quite real—and the film makes a very convincing case that it’s time we all did something about it.