'Bully': From Tragedy to Heartfelt Campaign
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
"Bully," the new documentary from director Lee Hirsch, is about bullying in America today, how it happens, how it takes lives. It opens with the tears of a father; it closes with a Web address. In between are moments of beauty in the American landscape and the graceful, terrifying grief of a woman who has turned the room where her son hanged himself into the "headquarters" of her outreach and advocacy efforts. In making this film (as in writing about this film), you imagine the people involved treading carefully, because in some cases, these are the names and the stories of the dead.
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So it means very little to say that the prerelease controversy about the film's rating is ludicrous. This film, for a few uses of the F-word, is rated R, and thereby protects American children between 13 and 18 from seeing the film unaccompanied by an adult, so that they might not hear language they hear, and use, every day. It was some of the other language used in the film's you-are-there camerawork, including filming on a school bus, that startled me. (I know it's crass to audibly worry about "today's young people," but the anatomical specificity of some of the threats is appalling.)
But as we follow the film, shot through the 2009-2010 school year, we meet 12-year-old Alex Libby through his school bus ride through Sioux City, Idaho. And Ja'Maya Jackson, a 14-year-old girl whose torment led her to pull her mother's pistol on a school bus in Yazoo County, Miss. And Kelby Johnson, a 16-year-old lesbian in Tuttle, Okla. As these small, human stories unfolded, I found myself wondering idly if Hirsch and crew skipped urban areas on purpose. The sight of a harried vice principal, asking a victim to sincerely apologize elicited groans from the audience. As kids ducked blows and insults while eating a lunch of chicken wings and French fries, I found myself wondering about school budgets, teacher salaries and teacher-to-pupil density in each school, questions never approached.
So is it horrible to suggest that "Bully" is better-intentioned than it is made? I hope not, as it is hard to be unmoved by the pain and hope in the eyes of parents like David and Tina Long of Georgia, and Kirk and Laura Smalley of Oklahoma, defiant but shattered by the heartbreak of burying their children. The film depicts how the Smalleys started a vigil and outreach initiative, Stand for the Silent, and the film directs you to thebullyproject.com, as balloons are cut from empty chairs by crying friends to commemorate the dead. Viewed as a documentary, "Bully" is more a chronicle of advocacy, an honest introduction to a discussion on violence in America's schools, than it is a formal or impartial documentary. But, still, it is hard to not respect anything that asks us to respect the stories of the dead, and asks us how we might help the living.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.