Directed by: Lee Hirsch (“Amandla”)
Written by: Lee Hirsch (“Amandla”) and Cynthia Lowen (debut)
It was the end of the line in my search for the kid who, during my sixth-grade year, made gym a class I feared every day. I had recruited a couple of high school friends early last week to help me track down my childhood bully, but the 72-hour pursuit ended when one of my gumshoes called me and rattled off a list of drug-possession and assault charges and jail time that my bully had collected over the last 15 years. But no bully. He was somewhere at large we couldn’t reach.
“Hey, at least you got your ass kicked by a future career criminal and not by someone who became a Sunday school teacher,” my friend said, only half joking.
I was honestly disappointed I hadn’t found him and a bit sad in receiving the news of his turbulent life. I wanted to call him up and invite him for a beer. I wanted to know if he remembered me or if I was only one of the dozens of nameless kids he shoved into lockers or forced into chokeholds. I wanted to ask him what had triggered so much anger inside his 13-year-old self. I wanted to find out if he had kids and what he would think if his son came home crying because someone pitched a basketball at his face or punched him in the gut when the coach wasn’t looking. I wanted to get the story the new, much-buzzed-about documentary “Bully” unfortunately fails to tell.
While it’s a timely and critical topic affecting one out of four teens, director Lee Hirsch takes what’s obviously the easiest narrative route – pointing his camera at the victims and their families. Bullying is a social epidemic the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services identifies as a bigger problem for teens today than racism and pressure from peers to have sex, but Hirsch approaches the film with more of a “Just Say No” message than with a sense of urgency.
Despite Hirsch’s thinly constructed attempt to confront an issue that demands all the attention it’s receiving from the media masses, he’s ultimately only able to tell the heartbreaking stories of the victims in his well-intentioned film. Just like my own bully, the perpetrators in the film are M.I.A.
Despite its dilution and its other faults, “Bully” still the kind of film students, parents, and teachers need to see. Yes, it’ll initiate the dialogue necessary if schools want to cut down on bullying (an important feat within itself), but as a film it could’ve been so much more poignant if Hirsch actually dove into the pit of the problem instead of merely skimming over it.
It’s no surprise “Bully” has an immediate advantage as the first major studio-backed documentary to tackle the topic. It’s almost certain to touch anyone who has ever experienced bullying firsthand and knows what it’s like to feel helpless. It’s especially moving when a bullied student, 12-year-old Alex Libby, shares his story of daily torment at the hands of schoolmates, some of whom he considers his friends. Other students Hirsch follows, like gay teenager Kelby Johnson, aren’t as impactful as they should be. It’s understandable Hirsch provided Kelby’s perspective (the 2010 suicide of Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi and the launch of the social media campaign It Gets Better Project are only two things that have caused the LGBT community and their supporters to rally together even stronger in recent years), but her interviews lack thought-provoking insight. Basically, it feels like she’s included to satisfy the demographic.
If Hirsch uncovers anything particularly well with “Bully” (besides the fact the MPAA seriously needs to reevaluate their role in the industry), it’s his uncompromising take on the incompetence of school administrators who have no idea what’s happening on their watch. At least for them, it should be a wake-up call. For everyone else, it’s a noteworthy public service announcement.