A devastating ‘Bully’
Schooled in cruelty: Alex Libby is one of the victims whose ordeals are depicted in the documentary “Bully.”
Updated: April 13, 2012 4:08PM
BULLY ★ ★ ★ 1/2
You won’t get a balanced, even-handed, objective view of bullying in American schools from this controversial and very personal documentary. What you will get is an uncomfortably up-close view of how it feels to be bullied, and the devastating effect it can have on the lives of young people and their families — even including the ultimate tragedy of suicide.
You may leave a screening of “Bully” with the vague feeling that you’ve been manipulated, but that won’t make it any easier to shake the emotions it triggers about a shameful practice that most of us have either suffered or perpetrated or witnessed at one time or another. “Bully” is likely to make anyone who sees it think long and hard about this issue, and for that reason it should be seen.
Keep in mind, though, that this is an activist documentary, made by a talented filmmaker with a very personal agenda. From the moment that co-writer/director Lee Hirsch (whose 2002 “Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony” won Sundance Festival and Emmy awards) opens with home-video footage of a happy little boy who morphs into an unhappy and withdrawn schoolboy, as his tearful father looks on (“I knew he would be victimized at some point in time”), it’s clear he has a point to make. And that he will use all the tools at his disposal to get that point across.
He does quite a good job, too. (That’s not surprising, considering that Hirsch was a victim of bullying himself in middle school.) And there are no doubt many, many parents and kids out there — it’s estimated that 13 million American children have to contend with bullying each year — who will say an emotional, confrontational film like “Bully” is infinitely more valuable than a traditional, talking-heads droner that carefully weighs the issue from all viewpoints, and is quickly forgotten.
The story of Tyler Long, the happy little boy who hanged himself at the age of 17 after years of merciless bullying, according to his parents and friends, is the first of five cases “Bully” examines. (Though it fails to report that Tyler’s parents have filed a $1.7 million lawsuit against their school board or about complications involving Tyler’s mental-health history.) Hirsch also tells the stories (all taking place in small Southern or Midwestern towns) of 14-year-old Ja’ Meya Jackson, an honors student who was charged with 45 felonies after threatening bullies with her mother’s handgun on a school bus, and 16-year-old Kelby Johnson, who was ostracized (in addition to being run down by a car) after coming out as a lesbian. Kelby is particularly affecting. After three suicide attempts, she decides to stay and stand up for herself despite her supportive (and equally ostracized) parents’ offer to move to another town — only to realize the challenge is more than she can handle.
It’s 12-year-old Alex Libby, though, who’s most likely to get under your skin. A premature baby who was expected to die within 24 hours, Alex has grown up to be gawky and goggle-eyed and socially awkward, with a typically open, oval mouth — hence, his charming nickname, “Fishface.” (The crime of all the bullied kids in this film appears to be that they are different from the norm.) Alex’s one desire is to make friends and he is quick to excuse or minimize the behavior of his tormentors. Yet Hirsch, who followed him, along with other students, while embedded for a year in his middle school, captures instance after instance of shocking abuse as Alex is bullied by other students. Twice in one morning, boys threaten to kill him, once before he even gets on the school bus. On the bus, he is routinely stabbed with pencils, punched, ridiculed, and even beaten and choked by a much larger boy, while the bus driver appears to see, in the rear-view mirror, and does nothing.
After that episode, Hirsch decided the threat to Alex was so great that he shared the footage with police, school officials and Alex’s parents — leading to the film’s most concrete example of official ineffectiveness, if not indifference. It also led to the much publicized showdown between the film’s distributor and the Motion Picture Assocation of America, which gave “Bully” an R rating because of the f-bombs employed by bullies. The MPAA recently reversed its decision after protest and granted “Bully” a PG-13 rating (which clears the way for it to be shown by more major theater chains), after Hirsch agreed to cut the offending word from a few scenes.
Not the scene in which Alex is beaten, though. The words are all there, as is the violence, as is the indifference of the kids looking on — and it’s all ugly. And very hard to forget.