Bully is a moving, vital and responsible must-see documentary directed by Lee Hirsch that serves as an allegedly “controversial” wake-up call for responsible human beings to address the heartbreaking headline issue of schoolyard bullying that is resulting in so many teenage suicides. “Controversial” for only one reason: It had been stupidly assigned an “R” rating by the Motion Picture Association of America, denying access to the teen audiences who are both victims and perpetrators of bullying—the very demographic that can best be served, educated, informed and ameliorated by the civic values it teaches. (The Weinstein Company has since decided to release the film unrated.) There’s an important movement building to pressure the MPAA to change the rating for Bully to “PG13” to benefit students of all ages in addition to their parents, teachers, families and friends. More about that below. First, let me assure you there’s a lot to learn from this touching and tender look at troubled youth today—not endangered by drugs or gangs, but by each other.
Mr. Hirsch follows five examples of bullying over the course of one school year. The results are mostly sad, but sometimes enriched with hope, and always avoidable, inexcusable and unnecessary in a free and privileged society like America’s. In Murray County, Georgia, where 17-year-old Tyler Long hanged himself from a closet shelf, his classmates and neighbors and adult teachers and advisers wonder why such a terrible thing could happen to a bright, clean-cut member of their community. Tyler was sensitive, unathletic, and called a geek and a fag by the other kids until the psychological damage was irreversible. Victimized, teased and tormented until enough was enough, he just opted out in search of peace. “If there is a heaven,” says his bereaved father, “I know Tyler is there—and all I can do is have the faith that I will see him again.”
But the love of a parent is not enough. In Tuttle, Okla., 16-year-old Kelby is a lesbian who was run down by six guys in their parents’ minivan. She is also a remarkable girl who works every day to promote peace, tolerance and understanding in her community, but it’s an uphill climb. In class, walking to school, or trying to befriend other girls in her age group to stave off her loneliness, Kelby is an outcast. She’s not welcomed in church, she’s banned from the homes of a lot of people who have known her parents their whole lives, on the first day of school everyone in the room changed desks, on the basketball court nobody would play with her because they didn’t want to touch her. One of her teachers even told the class homosexuality is a sin and gay people should be burned alive. Since she came out, her loving and sympathetic parents have been ostracized by people they’ve known for years, and Kelby has tried to commit suicide three times.
In Sioux City, Iowa, 12-year-old Alex has big teeth, puffy lips, thick glasses and a loping walk. Not exactly the all-American boy, he tries to fit in, but he’s called “fish face.” When questioned by his parents, he just stares into space with shame. In Yazoo County, Miss., Ja’Maya, 14, a black honor student and winner of numerous medals and school trophies, decided to fight back. Carrying a gun to school, she waved it at the bullies on the school bus and was charged with 45 counts of felony for defending herself. Now freed from incarceration, her devastated, grief-stricken family still suffers the consequences in their hostile community. In Perkins, Okla., Mr. Hirsch visits the funeral of 11-year-old Ty Fields, whose death has given other students a reason to question their own sense of justice and shared responsibility and they publicly express their opinions. These are the very people with the most to gain from watching Bully. They are forbidden to buy a ticket of admission.
In all of these stories, the viewer is haunted by recurring questions of morality and human integrity: How did we as the citizens of the greatest nation of opportunity on the planet come to this charnel house of meanness, violence, cruelty, racism, homophobia, brutality and hate? Why do our children distrust and fear their peers just because they are different? Why do we place so much phony value on popularity? From sports events to the Academy Awards, all we care about is winners, and sometimes we resent even them. Children are afraid to go to school because they are not protected or safe there—two rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Parents are privy to only limited information. Faculty members are overworked and underpaid. Bus drivers can’t discipline bullies after school and keep their eyes on the road at the same time. Particularly disturbing is the case of Alex, a boy so lonely that he allows himself to be stabbed, choked, punched, kicked and his face to be slammed into the school lockers because his attackers are the only friends he has!
A few things are happening to encourage reform and eradicate this mockery of civilization. In Georgia, after Tyler Long’s suicide, his parents called a town meeting and nobody from the school board showed up. One school system official shrugged off the tragedy with “Kids will be kids, boys will be boys.” Concerned citizens don’t agree. Outrage is growing over the kind of apathy that ends in tragedy. Some parents are forming support groups by using the Internet to reach out to other parents across the country who have been through the same pain. In Murray County, Georgia, which gets the worst black eye in the film, activists are gathering in town squares and releasing balloons with the names of suicide victims. Nationwide, kids are taking a stand, organizing and setting plans in motion to counsel other kids who are being bullied. Movies like Bully are educational tools that should be shown in classrooms across America. It is cinematic and encompassing, without manipulation or sentimentality. Still, the plight of these kids left me deeply sympathetic.
The strong odor of a need for change is in the air. The crisis of bullying must end before more children surrender to the agony of despair. Reversing the irresponsible “R” rating of this movie is a good place to start. Meryl Streep, the American Federation of Teachers, Johnny Depp, Ellen DeGeneres, Anderson Cooper, Tommy Hilfiger, Justin Bieber, 20 members of Congress and the presidents of theater chains are just a few of the early supporters of Bully. “It Starts With One” is the motto and the rallying cry of this growing movement, and Lee Hirsch is certainly one who is making a difference. I endorse him and his brave, powerful movie and urge you to see it for yourself. You might leave Bully with rage, but you will not leave Bully with indifference.
Running Time 98 minutes
Written by Lee Hirsch and Cynthia Lowen
Directed by Lee Hirsch and Alicia Dwyer
Starring Alex, Ja’Maya and Kelby
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