The subject of teen bullying, which has gotten a huge amount of media attention in the past couple of years due to a rash of suicides, gets the documentary treatment with “Bully.” The film tackles a worthy subject and has its heart in the right place, but it’s still highly problematic for a variety of reasons.
“Bully,” directed by Lee Hirsch, follows three kids in different towns who are bullied mercilessly, while also sharing the stories of two children who committed suicide after the same thing happened to them. The footage is often infuriating, especially as we see the bullying firsthand, and teachers and school principals and counselors are seen handling the situation is a horrifyingly inept fashion. As a father of two young boys, it certainly gave me pause.
We see school employees blaming the victims of bullying, and in one sorry scene, a school principal tells a bullied boy and his tormentor to shake hands and “work it out.” It’s sort of shocking how little self-awareness some of the subjects have, especially the bullies themselves and school administrators. They do know they were being filmed by a documentary crew, making a movie about bullying, right?
The subject and the footage are fascinating, and often powerful. But there are many aspects of the film that very much hurt it.
First of all, the quality of the filmmaking is shockingly subpar and amateurish. Thanks to shoddy camera work, the footage is blurry and unfocused for long stretches, and in the film’s early section, which uses lots of old home movie footage of the kids, it’s often hard to tell that from the actual movie. The editing, pace and tone leave much to be desired as well.
Secondly, the subjects all live in rural, red state America, and that’s a choice that doesn’t feel very accidental. There’s a whiff of condescension on the part of the filmmakers, as if they’re saying, “not only are these kids get picked on, but they have to live in a hellhole like that.” The producers of “Teen Mom,” in most cases, do the same thing.
While many of the news stories about bullying have focused on gay and lesbian teens, the film mostly soft-pedals the subject; only one of the subjects, a 16-year-old from Oklahoma named Kelby, is gay, and while she’s the most compelling of them, she’s probably in the film the least.
“Bully” also fumbles the story of Ja’Meya, a 14-year-old in Mississippi who was bullied by classmates to the point where she brought a gun on her school bus and brandished it, threatening several other students. That she was arrested and held for a time in a medical facility is treated by the film as a grave injustice, even though- bullying notwithstanding- waving around a gun on a school bus is a pretty awful thing that absolutely deserves punishment.
And perhaps even worse, the film never bothers to interview the bullies themselves, or attempts to get at why they do what they do. That might’ve added something new; as it is, “Bully” tells us just about nothing about the subject of bullying that we didn’t already know.
Most of the movie’s news coverage has focused on the producers’ battle with the MPAA over whether or not “Bully” can be released with a PG-13 rather than R rating, which really goes to the absurdity of the MPAA’s criteria. In a movie featuring some of the worst, most disturbing human cruelty I’ve ever seen in a documentary, the content battle is over a few errant F-bombs. Then again, that this battle is being fought by studio boss Harvey Weinstein- who’s known as something of a bully himself- is yet another problematic aspect.
Despite all that, considering past precedent, its subject matter and the power of Weinstein, is “Bully” a shoo-in to win next year’s Best Documentary Oscar? Of course it is.
If you’re interested in this topic, here’s my advice: This weekend, instead of going to see “Bully,” go on YouTube and spend a couple of hours watching “It Gets Better” videos. They’re more compelling and illuminating, and even have better production values.