Bullying has progressed a lot since I was in school. I suppose I could have went to school in a school system that was below the nationwide bullying norm, but I was never physically bullied when I was in school, nor did I witness anyone else get physically bullied. Most bullying happened verbally with name calling. Although that’s still hurtful to many children, including myself, it was just the way school worked. People made jokes at my expense, I made jokes at someone else’s expense and that person made jokes at someone else’s expense. It was a harmless chain reaction that eventually made its way full circle and the pattern kept repeating itself. Nowadays, however, bullies stab, punch, assault and threaten to kill helpless children based solely on their looks or the way they sound. With increased news coverage over recent years, it was only a matter of time before a documentary emerged. Directed by Lee Hirsch, Bully isn’t an entirely successful exposé on bullying in America, but it’s nevertheless an important film that demands change and needs to be seen.
The movie begins with a father recounting the life and death of his son, Tyler. Tyler was never popular in school and was bullied incessantly. He was forced to urinate on himself, he was called horrible names and he was physically abused like none other. One day, he decided enough was enough and he hung himself in his closet, leaving only a note behind for his parents. He was only 17 years old. Cut to Sioux City, Iowa where we meet 12 year old Alex. He’s a meek kid who has no friends and is considered weird by the rest of his classmates. He is the main subject of the film and with good reason. His daily torment is captured on camera and the things you watch happen to him are sickening and unforgivable. While riding on the bus to school, he is choked by kids sitting behind him, stabbed with pencils, punched for nothing and called debilitating names like Fish Face. When someone sits next to him, he asks to be their friend, to which the kid replies that he is going to bring a knife to school the next day and cut his face off. Tyler was bullied so bad that suicide was his only viable option and as you watch Alex, who is only five years from Tyler’s breaking point, you can’t help but wonder if he’s heading down that very same path.
Alex is the heart of this movie and if it’s going to make any change whatsoever, it’s going to come through his story, but Bully introduces a couple other kids nonetheless, to less success. First we meet Kelby, age 16, who lives in Tuttle, Oklahoma. She’s a lesbian who is courageously open with her sexuality, but unaccepted by those around her. She tells stories of people not wanting to touch her and how her classmates actively avoid her. However, her story is only a small snippet in the overall picture and isn’t fleshed out enough to make an impact. Although her stories are sad, we never see what she goes through—the filmmakers have neglected to capture it on camera—and she doesn’t even seem all that upset, despite her admittance that she has tried to kill herself before. Every second she’s on camera she is surrounded by a group of friends and accompanied by her girlfriend. You don’t see the pain on her face the way you do Alex and nothing is shown to convince us of her troubles. Homophobic bullying is an important issue as well (a whole separate documentary could be made about the subject, in fact), but Bully forcefully wedges it in without exploring it.
Later on we meet Ja’meya Jackson, a 14 year old who is facing felony charges after pulling a gun on some students who ridiculed her on the bus. The film tries to make the argument that bullying can lead to responsive violence. That may be true, but no amount of verbal taunting justifies endangering the lives of a bus full of people. Again, the bullying is never shown, only suggested, and with an argument that is already very hard to get behind, this lack of evidence negates an entire section of the film.
Bully has its problems, sure, and its minor stories hurt the film more than they help it, but it’s impossible to watch Alex, an all around gentle soul, go through what he does. It’s absolutely heartbreaking. Nobody should be treated the way he is, yet it’s happening all over the country to children every day. You don’t need to have been bullied in school to walk out of this sobering documentary with a desire to help spark change. All you need is some basic human decency.
Bully receives 3.5/5