Turns Victims Into Victors

(USA, 98 min.)
Dir. Lee Hirsch, Writ. Lee Hirsch, Cynthia Lowen.
Boys will be boys and kids will be kids. It’s disturbing, but not surprising, how much the status quo prevails in some of the communities observed in Bully. The documentary, directed by Lee Hirsch, shows how bullying remains a widespread problem that greatly affects, if not damages, countless youth across America. It’s a universal problem, as the film shows by following several storylines throughout America that tell of young students facing endless torment in the schoolyard. Bully shows that the problem is brazenly evident – regardless of what the politicians at the schools say – and its one whose solution is difficult, but not altogether unrealizable.

The film offers five stories of kids who are victims of bullying. Alex, a twelve-year-old boy in Sioux City, Iowa, faces both physical and non-physical violence each day he goes to school. The kids on the bus strangle him, punch him, and stab him. An assistant principal at his school says that the bus is safe and that the kids are “as good as gold,” but Hirsch’s camera captures them tormenting Alex as he goes to and from school. The hooting and hollering of the bullies goes unacknowledged by the bus-driver. Her indifference ripples through the community as several school officials, police officers, and more simply shrug off the situation and say that there is nothing that can be done about bullying. The school board even opts not to send a representative when a town meeting assembles to address the problem.
A similar story emerges in the thread that tells of fourteen-year-old Ja’Meya. Ja’Meya is an honours student and star basketball player at her school in Mississippi. Despite her aptitude and kind spirit, bullies torment her too. Nothing is done to resolve the problem and it escalates with Ja’Meya bringing a gun onto the school bus and demanding that the problem stop. As with Ja’Meya’s story, the narratives featuring the parents of Ty and Tyler show that few people take bullying seriously until the problem explodes in violence. Both Ty and Tyler committed suicide because the bullying bothered them so deeply. Their parents, visibly shaken with grief, make it their mission to stand up for the children who succumb silently to bullying.

Not all the stories tell of kids who remain silent. One thread follows Kelby, a sixteen-year-old who became a target in her small town in Oklahoma when she came out as a lesbian. Kelby, however, offers a candid and refreshing positive attitude and expresses how she realizes that the problem lies not within herself, but within the closed minds of her community. It’s sad, though, to see this smart, articulate girl be driven away from her friends because her neighbours are so immune to acceptance.
Hirsch weaves between the stories and builds a case for the need to address bullying as a serious issue. The film offers some shocking footage of the kids being victimized by their peers; however, the more distressing footage comes in scenes with the elders and authorities in the film who simply deny the problem or avoid addressing it for fear of sensitivity. (One presumes that the few actions taken are done solely because a camera is present.) The worst, though, is seeing how some of the elders compound the problem by turning it back on the victims. An assistant principal (her again) skirts the issue by turning the blame on one boy who is reluctant to shake hands with a bully because, as he says to the principal, the problem is not going to stop with a phony handshake. The principal simply tells the boy that he is as bad as the bully is and she walks away.

Bully takes the route of playing the blame game a bit too often. The school board, admittedly, comes off quite poorly, but there are some teachers who genuinely work to address the issue; likewise, it shows that some parents need to be more sensitive, and that the assigned officials need to recognize non-physical violence as a problem. Bully does little to solve the problem when it points the finger because bullying is a problem that essentially effects and implicates everyone; however, the film works when it uses these situations to illustrate the importance of speaking up. The film suggests that acknowledging bullying is the first step towards solving the problem, and it uses the stories of the kids and their parents to show the consequences of what happens when the problem remains hidden.

Bully might not make for the most striking piece of filmmaking (the cinematography is annoying and the narrative threads lack are sporadic and a bit incoherent), yet I cannot help but admire the earnestness and idealism of its message. It gives a voice to silent victims and tells them that they are not alone; likewise, stories such as Kelby’s show that perseverance and a positive attitude go a long way, and are much more productive than anger. The kids in Bully are brave for appearing on camera and intimately revealing themselves to the peers who torment them. If Bully neglects to offer a clear and concise solution to the issue, one should acknowledge that bullying is a problem too difficult and too deeply rooted to pose an easy answer. The film succeeds by showing that addressing bullying is the first step. Bully turns victims into victors. 

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Bully plays at the Mayfair (Bank) on Thursday July 5.