Movie Review: Bully
A heartbreaking documentary by filmmaker Lee Hirsch, who looks at the victims of bullying: a sensitive boy who's attacked daily on a school bus, a lonely gay girl, a teen driven to bring a gun to school. Every student should see it.
Featuring: Ja'Meya Jackson, Alex Libby, Kelby Johnson
Director: Lee Hirsch
Rating: Four stars out of five
At one point in the heartbreaking documentary, Bully, a 12-year-old boy from Sioux City, Iowa, named Alex Libby, is talking about his day on the school bus. It's just another day, we can see, in a lonely hell that shows no signs of ending.
"This high-schooler was strangling me, but I think he was just messing around," Alex tells his father: part testimony, part attempt to reduce the severity of the relentless torment he undergoes. It feels like a confession, because, in some way, Alex -- a thin and lost-looking boy whose prominent lips lead other children to call him "Fish Face," to poke him with pencils and punch him in the arm and knock him into lockers -- is more than a victim. In the twisted world of Bully, it's also his fault, in some way, for not "standing up" to the young sadists who dominate his world.
Bully is the straightforward tale of five small-town American children who are bullied for various reasons, two of them into committing suicide. "Kids told him to go hang himself, that he was worthless, and I think he got to the point where enough was enough," says David Long, of Murray County, Georgia, whose son Tyler committed suicide at the age of 17. The next day at school, we later learn, a group of students showed up with ropes around their necks in mocking salute.
Bully says 13 million American schoolchildren are the victims every year. Filmmaker Lee Hirsch followed some of them with a small camera, riding to and from school on the bus, roaming the halls, talking to school officials. It's a frightening and frustrating journey. "Does it make you feel good when they punch you?" Alex's mother asks him, after the filmmakers -- worried for Alex's safety -- have shown her footage of what happens every day. "I'm starting to feel I don't feel anything any more," Alex says.
Alex is just one of the stories in Bully, which concentrates on the heartland of America. It's clear the stories could be told anywhere, but there's a special kind of hell for Kelby Johnson, 16, of Tuttle, Oklahoma, a prepossessing girl with broad shoulders, a confident bearing and a rueful sadness. When Kelby came out as gay, she was banned from the school teams and shunned by her classmates. Someone put a note on her locker reading, "Faggots aren't welcomed here." She says her teachers took attendance for "boys," "girls" and "Kelby." Her parents say their old friends and neighbours will no longer have anything to do with them.
The family wanted to move, but Kelby -- who is blessed, unlike some bullied kids, with a group of friends -- is determined to stick it out and change minds. Eventually, she realizes that some minds take too long to change.
The story of Ja'Meya Jackson of Yazoo City, Mississippi, was almost even more tragic: After years of bullying and insults, she pulled a gun on a school bus, and faced 22 counts of kidnapping and aggravated assault.
Maybe she should have done something else, but Bully's interviews with school officials can bring you close to tears of impotent rage. When a young boy tells a vice-principal named Kim Lockwood about how he is teased in the cafeteria -- "He calls me a faggot. ... It breaks my heart" -- she tells him, "I don't have any magic." Alex's parents go to the school to complain, only to be told that lots of kids have trouble on school buses.
Bully doesn't break much new ground in its dissection of the issues: There are no studies or psychologists to explain things. But it puts a face on the victims (and sometimes, on the perpetrators, who carry an attitude of invulnerability), and it comes with an agenda, including promoting a group called Stand for the Silent that is touring schools and asking children to stop bullying when they see it.
Alas, this has proven to be difficult, as well: American censors stamped Bully with an R rating because the f-word is used a few times (the movie is rated PG in Canada). This means that its target audience, young teenagers, can't watch it, and it can't be shown in schools. It has now been released in the U.S. with no rating, which means some theatres won't show it. By contrast, The Hunger Games, a film about adolescents who murder one another, has been rated PG-13.