Bully is one of those films people need to see. But while the documentary does a great job in telling the stories of those who are tormented, it would have been better to see the perspectives of the bullies as well.
Directed by Lee Hirsch, the film documents peer-to-peer bullying in schools across America. It follows five young individuals in different situations. However, each of them are victims in their own right.
Alex Libby, a sweet and caring 12-year-old from Iowa, is often beat up on the school bus and called names like ‘Fishface’ as a result of his puckered face from being born prematurely. Coming from a large family, Alex’s father asks him why he can’t defend himself while his little sister complains about being bullied just because he’s her brother.
Kelby Johnson a 16-year-old from Oklahoma, is isolated from her community just because she is gay. Raised in a religious community that was taught that homosexuality is a sin, her family has been isolated from friends and neighbours as a result of Kelby coming out.
14-year-old Ja’Meya Jackson of Mississippi on the other hand, is an honour student and decorated athlete. She ends up in a juvenile detention center as a result of aiming her mother’s gun at her tormentors.
And lastly, there’s 17-year-old Tyler Long and 11-year-old Ty Smalley, both who took their own lives due to bullying. Recovering from their recent losses, their parents share their experiences while attempting to bring bullying awareness to their communities.
The stories here are heartbreaking, devastating and even frustrating. There’s a lot of bullying displayed but watching how little is being done to help is exasperating.
As one assistant principal watches students at her school being bullied, she only shakes her head and tells them to be nice after making them do a reluctant handshake.
It’s almost as if she’s blind or too scared to take action. When Alex’s parents confront her about the tormenting their son faces on the bus, she only offers, “Buses are notoriously bad places for a lot of kids. Tell me how to fix this. I don’t have any magic.”
In other words, she means, “That’s not my problem. He needs to toughen up.”
And at another school, a superintendent recognizes that bullying is problematic but says it isn’t an “overarching concern.”
Unfortunately, that’s only as far as Bully goes.
It would have been nice to see Hirsch take a more objective approach as we don’t get any expert opinions about bullying or an inside look of the bullies themselves. What prompts these children to harm others and what are their own personal struggles? How can we help stop it?
As detailed and personal Hirsch is in sharing the stories of those affected, this film remains completely one-sided. It only offers the perspectives of those who are tormented.
Nonetheless, it’s surprising that Bully received an “R” rating by the Motion Picture Association of America when there’s hardly any profanity in the documentary. While it has since been deemed “unrated”, this film is quite tame to watch despite the schoolyard bullying.
Thankfully enough, it’s only rated PG in Ontario and other Canadian provinces. With a few f-bombs and offensive insults thrown in, it’s a film that should be seen by students in their middle school or high school years.
But as this documentary only goes as far as telling the victims’ side of the story, it really is up to the viewers to educate themselves about the issue of bullying.
While there’s potential for a positive ending, we can only hope that this film can provide a huge stepping stone in creating awareness about the devastating effects of bullying.
As Alex says about the future: “I don’t believe in luck. But I do I believe in hope.”
(This piece was featured in the May issue of the Ryerson Free Press)