Each week in The Moviegoer, Nick Olson examines new and upcoming films.
If you’ve heard of Lee Hirsch’s recent documentary Bully, it’s likely because of the controversy between Harvey Weinstein and the MPAA over whether the film should be rated R or PG-13 due to instances of strong language from adolescent bullies. Eventually, some of those instances were cut, and the documentary received a PG-13 rating. Hopefully, conversation surrounding the film will take a more substantive turn, because not only does Bully inspire conversation, it necessitates further discussion by virtue of raising more questions than answers. Hirsch primarily attends to the instances and effects of bullying on the victims and their families. And to that end, he does so to great effect, allowing—for the most part—the difficult situations to speak for themselves.
Hirsch—himself a victim of bullying as a child—begins by focusing on the most urgent reason to deal with bullying that he can: a 17-year-old named Tyler Long who resorted to hanging himself in his bedroom closet after years of psychological bruising from incessant cruelty. Later, we find out about a mere 11-year-old named Ty Smalley who is driven to the same kind of despair that makes life no longer worth living. These two cases of suicide are told through the tearful-yet-resolute perspective of the respective parents. The recounting of the circumstances that led to their suicides—coupled with the parents’ pursuit of reform in the schools’ disciplinary system—provides the emotional center of the film.
My heart broke for all of the victims depicted in Bully, but I’ll most remember 12-year-old Alex Libby, who, born both prematurely and with Asperger’s syndrome, has seemingly had to deal with adversity since before he can remember. By nature struggling with socialization while still desirous of friends, Alex’s awkward temperament makes him an easy target for his middle school peers. On the bus ride to school, Alex is stabbed with a pencil, punched, and choked. His head is shoved against the seat. He is called a “faggot.” One of Alex’s classmates refers to him as “his bitch.” Naturally reticent, Alex is probably ill-equipped to know how to handle the situation, and, like most kids, resigned to the idea that bullying is normative of adolescence—even of adolescent friendship.
Of the three living victims documented in the film, one has Asperger’s syndrome, one is a black girl, and one is openly homosexual. If there’s a clear underlying motivation (or at least a common factor) to the bullying to be found in Hirsch’s documentary, it’s an inherent hatred for the “other”. Early in the film, young Alex laments, “People think I’m different—not normal. I feel like I belong somewhere else.” He likens himself to an alien. I’ve no doubt that hatred of the “other”—of the minority or the least of these—is an aspect of humanity’s deep-seated fallenness that is multifaceted. But in the school setting among adolescents and teenagers, this kind of scorn seems inextricably related to popularity’s hierarchy. In a moment that is humorous and also rings true, one of the suicide victim’s young friends vows, “If I was king of the US, I’d make it so there was no popularity.”
Other than a few moments that feel manipulative to a degree, my one gripe with the documentary is that it does not concern itself with causes or solutions–at least not with any breadth or depth. The film could have been well-served if Hirsch had sought some perspective of or from the bullies. An attempt to humanize them in the sense of detecting motive or influence would have added another dimension to the documentary. Bully‘s limited focus is also problematized by the fact that it seems to place at least some blame on the schools’ discipline system in a way that feels over-reductive. The documentary’s hat-tip to school reform seems to overwhelm any other potential solution in a way that also makes the problem itself seem far less complicated.
Yet, Bully is effective in that it gives a significant voice to a problem that is often perpetuated by pressure to remain silent. If part of being bullied is related to not being accepted by one’s peers, then getting one’s peers in trouble for bullying hardly seems an effective means of closing that gap. Perhaps a pragmatic result of the film will be to make bullying “uncool” among young people. The film takes on an unfounded change-the-world kind of tone at certain points, but it’s true that when an ideal becomes fashionable, it catches on quickly and spreads among impressionable youth. Ultimately, though, a more permanent change can only come when individuals, and therefore communities, find self-worth in the willingness to sacrifice for, rather than triumph over, their neighbors–even the “different” ones.