Credits: Directed by Lee Hirsch
Details: (M), 98 mins, In Cinemas 23 August 2012, United States, English
Synopsis: Over 13 million American kids will be bullied every year, making it the most common form of violence experienced by young people in the nation. This documentary brings human scale to this startling statistic, examining how bullying has touched five kids and their families. It looks the responses of teachers and administrators to aggressive behaviors that defy 'kids will be kids' clichés, and it captures a growing movement among parents and youths to change how bullying is handled in schools, in communities and in society as a whole.
Admirable project avoids digging into deeper issues.
Is it getting worse? Or are children less prepared to handle it than they have been in generations past?
SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: A documentary conceived and ultimately trapped in the storytelling ghetto of ‘raising awareness’, Bully, the second feature from director Lee Hirsch, collects anecdotes about kids persecuted by their peers, some to the point of suicide.
Bully has gained both a new name (it was originally titled The Bully Project) and a new director (it was first credited to Jeni Decker-Lopez) since its premiere at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, though its content appears virtually unchanged. Its subject has only accrued in relevance since its debut: this week the high profile trial of teen suicide victim Tyler Clementi’s alleged tormentor ended with a 30-day prison sentence and US$10,000 fine; and stories recently surfaced about American presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s past as a high school bully. Both instances have renewed an ongoing debate about the nature of bullying and the kind of person who bullies—especially in those early, formative years.
Although a pathetically inadequate school official is featured, inevitably demonstrating the way adults fail the children they should be protecting in such situations, Hirsch focuses almost entirely on the victims. An effective emotional strategy, it also proves a disservice to the larger questions raised about who is responsible for bullying and what can be done—if not to eradicate it then to ease it before someone like Ja’meya, a Mississippi teenager being held in a psychiatric detention ward at the time of filming, winds up boarding a school bus with her mother’s gun.
Or before someone kills himself. Stories of suicide bookend Bully, the first following a striking opening credits sequence set to a children’s choir version of Wheatus’ ‘Teenage Dirtbag’. Tyler Long, his father tells us, had the whole world in front of him. We watch home movies of a playful boy who grew into an introspective adolescent. His father says he “knew [Tyler] would be victimised at some point in time,” a curious statement that, like much else in Bully, goes unexplored. Tyler was vulnerable because he was a loner, and—the ultimate curse—unathletic. He was picked on and pushed around, his peers seeming to feed on his feelings of insecurity and unbelonging. At 17, Tyler hung himself in his bedroom closet, a space Hirsch has Tyler’s mother point out to the camera, inviting us to imagine the scene.
It’s unspeakably sad, and sets the tone for what is to come: heartbreak and outrage, coursing steadily but without a clear perspective. Except that bullying is bad, and we should be aware of that. But is it getting worse? Or are children less prepared to handle it than they have been in generations past? Have we created a culture that is more hospitable for bullies? “We knew why Tyler did what he did,” his parents tell us. “There was no doubt in our mind.” We are left to take their word for it, or their allusion, anyway. At different points, Tyler’s negligent school and non-bullying-but-silent peers are parceled out blame for his death, but neither possibility is entirely satisfying, in part because we can never fully know why another person takes their own life.
From Tyler’s story we move to Sioux City, Iowa (all of the stories derive from middle America, not renowned as a heartland of tolerance), where 12-year-old Alex, a studious string bean with the gentlest of temperaments, is followed to school and back over a period of weeks. We are primed to be terrified for Alex, and Hirsch seems eager to catch the elusive act of bullying in progress. It proves fairly easy: by the time Alex gets to school he’s been sworn at, belittled, threatened, and casually shoved around. We also see Alex responding with bafflement and hurt, sometimes putting himself directly in his bully’s way. Later, after Hirsch shows Alex’s parents and the school authorities the footage he has collected, Alex asks his chagrined mother: “If you say these people are not my friends then what friends do I have?”
It’s a rare moment of earned poignancy in a film that forces a sameness into stories that are obviously unique and uniquely complicated. Alex’s father admonishes him to stick up for himself: “People will start seeing you as a punching bag,” he warns. “And nobody respects a punching bag.” It’s a speech many of us heard, in one form or another, while growing up. What differentiates your childhood from those of the kids featured here would seem to be everything and nothing. In making a convincing case for the abiding cruelty of children, Bully will wring you out, in a high and dry kind of way. But what it illuminates about its subjects or the larger issues is roughly proportional to the puddle you leave on the ground.
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