The topic of bullying entered the national conversation in the fall of 2010, when the suicides of several gay teenagers led to an outpouring of empathy that evolved into a grassroots, online campaign that reassured victims of harassment with a simple, straightforward message: “It gets better.”
By contrast, Bully, the new documentary from the Weinstein Company, owes its media attention largely to studio boss Harvey Weinstein, whose P.T. Barnum-esque criticism of the Motion Picture Association of America's rating system led to a studio-manufactured campaign to bring the film to cities and towns across the country. What's not clear is if the film is actually worth all the controversy.
Director Lee Hirsch's documentary follows the stories of five bullying victims from high schools across the Midwest and Southern United States. The film draws a lot of visceral power from the fact that two of its subjects have already been driven to suicide; we learn about them through photos, home videos and interviews with their parents, who have since become anti-bullying advocates. But the similarities in these two stories actually serve to dilute them, especially after the focus is placed on the parents and their activism.
Story management is a big problem with Bully; filming five characters in multiple states over the course of just one year leaves Hirsch switching haphazardly between characters as shooting schedules and release forms allow. Fourteen-year-old Ja'Meya is maddeningly vague about the taunts that drove her to bring her mother's handgun onto the school bus to stand up to her tormentors; the grainy security footage of the incident is captivating, but ultimately hollow without any context. Similarly, 16-year-old Kelby makes mention of the oppression she faces as an openly lesbian teen in a deeply religious small town, but it's all hearsay – the film's footage of her is mostly her small group of friends having a good time together, playing in the rain and climbing abandoned train cars.
The film's real center is Alex, a gawky, serious-looking 12-year-old whose prominent lips have earned him the monicker “Fish Face.” The misery of adolescence is apparent as his mother watches home movies of him as an adorable, precocious baby – Alex is painfully aware of his own awkwardness, and needs so badly to fit in with his peers that he willingly resigns himself to their daily verbal and physical abuse as his only chance of acceptance. He is torn between his own pride and his need for rescue, regularly hiding the extent of the abuse from his parents. You can almost see his heart break when his mother explains that anyone who treats him so poorly isn't his friend. “If they're not my friends,” he says in a sobering moment of clarity, “then I don't have any friends.”
He doesn't have much help from his school's administration, either. The faculty proves charmingly oblivious to the severity of the issues at hand, nodding politely with every lodged complaint and giving flaccid assurances that the problems will be dealt with. His assistant principal in particular showcases an outrageous blend of simple-minded weariness while dealing with discipline issues: the film's most effective scene has her scolding a victim for not accepting his bully's mandated, insincere handshake apology. “That makes you just the same as him,” is the wisdom she chooses to impart.
Hirsch makes a number of questionable decisions that weaken the overall film. In an effort to engineer a more palpable confrontation, he reveals footage of their son being bullied on the bus to Alex's parents, then blatantly edits the resultant meeting with the assistant principal to reinforce his cartoonish portrayal of her. He also dedicates the film's final reel to the establishment of a worldwide anti-bullying movement – valuable screen time that could've gone toward better fleshing out either of the girls' stories. But most glaringly, he doesn't make any effort to explore the bully characters or define them in any way. By treating bullying as a nameless, all-encompassing threat that demands a blanket call to action, he abstracts the very human culprits, and misses an opportunity for understanding the motivations that lie behind the problem.
Despite Harvey Weinstein's claims, Bully isn't terribly shocking, nor does it reveal any heretofore unknown truths about modern adolescence. It simply holds a camera up to high school life and reveals what we all pretty much already knew: Being a teenager is really, really awful. Yes, it is a film that probably needed to be made. Yes, every teenager should probably see it. Bully may be a necessary film; it's just not a particularly good one.
2.5 Stars (out of 5)
Directed By: Lee Hirsch
Written by: Lee Hirsch & Cynthia Lowen
Produced By: Lee Hirsch & Cynthia Lowen
Distributor: The Weinstein Company
Running Time: 93 minutes
Budget: $1 million (estimated)
Release Date: March 30, 2012 (limited)