Lee Hirsch’s Bully has been in the news lately at the center of a ratings war between the Weinstein Company, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO). The documentary earned and retained an R rating from the MPAA, despite an appeal by the distributor, which has elected instead to release it unrated, inciting a warning from NATO that such a move may encourage its movie theater members to treat it as an NC-17-rated film.
All the better. For despite the strong language that garnered it an R, Bully deserves—nay, demands—to be seen, and all the hoopla surrounding its controversial rating has galvanized a movement in support of its release that hopefully will inspire parents, educators and especially kids to check out what all the fuss is about.
According to the Department of Education, 13 million children will be bullied this year. Bully profiles five of these victims, including 17-year-old Tyler and 11-year-old Ty, whose parents mourn the bully-provoked suicides of their sons; 16-year-old Kelby, whose tight-knit community turned on her when she came out of the closet; and 14-year-old Ja’Meya, whom we meet in a juvenile detention center after bullying drove her to brandish a loaded handgun on the school bus one morning.
But most memorable, and the face of the film’s anti-bullying campaign, is Alex, a 12-year-old seventh grader at East Middle School in Sioux City, Iowa. Alex’s victimization, as well as the well-meaning yet highly ineffectual efforts of school administrators and even his parents to deal with what they don’t fully understand, is caught on tape. This is where the film’s R rating comes in, for Alex is subjected to the foulest of threats and name-calling by his peers, impossible to edit out and a disservice to the movie’s message if bleeped. He’s also hit, pushed, poked and stabbed—all on film.
Hirsch was able to capture such shocking behavior by blending into the fabric of the school while shooting over the course of the 2009-2010 academic year. He also wielded a Canon 5D Mark II, which looks like a regular still camera, an equipment choice that also yielded footage that struggles to stay in focus. Still, the camera yields exquisite imagery with the intimate feel of home video, especially in Hirsch’s moving interviews with the parents of Tyler and Ty.
More distressing than the actions of the children, however, is the inaction of the adults, who are portrayed as underreacting to the issue and in some cases even blaming the victim. Alex’s parents, who have four other children, seem young, overwhelmed and unaware of the severity of his abuse. (At one point the filmmakers step in and share their footage with them, the school and the police, to disappointing results.)
Assistant principal Kim Lockwood’s grossly faulty logic and insensitive whitewashing, though, provoked audible gasps from the audience, and deservedly so. She has apparently seen the film and been deeply affected by it—just the sort of transformation parents, teachers and children will experience as well if they’re given the chance to see Bully.
Director: Lee Hirsch
Writer: Lee Hirsch and Cynthia Lowen
Starring: Ja’Meya Jackson; Kelby, Londa & Bob Johnson; Alex, Jackie, Philip, Maya, Jada, Ethan & Logan Libby; Kim Lockwood; David, Tina, Teryn & Troy Long; Devon Matthews; Barbara Primer; Kirk & Smalley; Trey Wallace
Release Date: Mar. 30, 2012