So many scenes in Bully are mundane, bits of the lives of ordinary people in different communities, especially young people going to class, playing with friends, sitting with their families. It is almost anti-cinematic in the way it offers those vignettes — except for the agony that surrounds and breaks into those moments.
That agony comes when one of the young people is bullied. Or when past bullying takes a child or adolescent to a breaking point, where the only response the victim can see is to greet violence with violence, or to make a permanent exit from the pain via suicide.
Even the most terrifying moments in the film, when a 12-year-old boy endures verbal and physical torment on a school bus, are made more so by the lack of reaction by others. The bus keeps rolling. The driver takes no action. Other children watch, seemingly unmoved, apparently never thinking that they could be the next target of a bully,
And that notion — that there is really nothing to worry about — carries over to adults in authority. There is still an argument, as one man says, that “boys will be boys, kids will be kids,” There are still school administrators who think bullying is not so bad — that a town meeting called by parents of a suicide is not something that needs to be attended.
Even when a girl is so threatened that she takes a gun onto her bus to frighten her abusers into submission, it is the girl with the gun who is punished — charged with the kidnapping of every other child, including those who led her to that desperate act.
Indeed, Bully should nag at any adult who sees it, dredging up memories of bullying experienced or witnessed, demanding that something be done, refusing to accept that children can work out a problem with a handshake.
The documentary by Lee Hirsch has generated some controversy. The Motion Picture Association of America originally slapped it with an R rating for one scene of violence on a bus and for several uses of the F-word. A recent screening of that version made clear the ridiculousness of the MPAA’s argument, much the way it so absurdly feared strong language in the benign, Oscar-winning The King’s Speech that that movie got an R rating, too.
But the argument was even more nonsensical with Bully since it aimed to “protect” young moviegoers who would be most familiar with the content from their own lives. They are the ones singled out as small, or weak, or gay, or “stupid,” or just “creepy” — or who have singled out others.
Protests of the R ensued and the movie was later granted a PG-13 based on the deleting of some of the F-words. But I still hope that adults see it, with or without young people, because it is adults who bear so much of the blame for the bullying that pervades the film.
The problem with bullying is told through several stories of young people who have been bullied. Two of them — Tyler Long and Ty Smalley — committed suicide. Ja’Meya, the girl with the gun, ended up in jail. Another, Alex, is abused so often that he judges a good day by just not getting attacked; even people he considers friends abuse him, to the point that he asks, “If these people aren’t my friends, then what friends do I have?”
Kelby, a 16-year-old girl who comes out as gay, shows that bullying is not only the province of children; she says she was driven out of the sports she loved, and that a teacher once divided the class into boys, girls and her; her parents, meanwhile, lost longtime friends because of their daughter. Kirk Smalley, Ty’s father, laments that they’re “nobodies,” and that not even their son’s death can persuade authorities to do something.
The Smalleys did do something on their own, starting the anti-bullying organization Stand for the Silent. And Kelby refused to leave her small town — convinced that would mean that the bullies had won. But while the movie includes scenes of Stand for the Silent rallies, it also shows Kelby realizing that she is not changing many minds. But maybe Bully will change some.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and in the HeldenFiles Online blog at http://heldenfels. ohio.com. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. He can be reached at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.