Silver Screen: Bully **
Pointing out that the bluntly well-intentioned documentary Bully isn't very good feels a bit like, well, intellectual bullying. The film wraps itself in a vaguely leftist hypersensitivity, something similar to the weary Mmmmmm-hmmmming and hand-wringing of Phil Donahue, with the seeming belief that nobility of purpose equals proficiency of execution. The end result is a tear-sodden mess of footage presented with little context that makes a series of maladroit emotional appeals without ever engaging the subject on a more substantial level.
Director Lee Hirsch presents his footage with little commentary in an approach that gives the illusion of objectivity when in fact it's an excuse to avoid intellectual rigor. This is a subject begging for tough questions, but you won't find any here.
Bully opens with snapshots and home video of a skinny, tentative-looking young boy named Tyler Long, with voiceover narration by his father, David. The imminent tragedy is clear well before it's stated: This introverted kid, coltish and shy, felt an increasing sense of isolation at school until he eventually hanged himself in his bedroom closet.
The movie then skips around the country to a series of locales to tell similar stories. One boy, an avid hunter, turns his gun on himself after suffering constant harassment at school. A teenage lesbian in a Bible Belt community refuses to drop out of school despite constant taunting that led her to three suicide attempts. Another girl, pushed to the brink, wields a gun on a school bus to frighten her antagonizing peers and winds up facing a possible prison sentence.
Much of this is conveyed with after-the-fact interviews and some pre-existing footage-- including the harrowing tape taken from the school-bus camera in which young Ja'Maya wildly waves around a pistol-- but the filmmakers also follow gangly outcast Alex around for most of a year and capture some unnerving candid shots of fellow classmates abusing and threatening him.
The individual stories are all heartbreaking, and there are lessons to be gleaned from each of them, but when united they don't form a particularly coherent mosaic. They reinforce each other more through redundancy than parallelism, while the common factors and social structures underpinning their troubles go largely unexamined.
It's notably unmentioned, for instance, that every instance of bullying the film documents takes place in a rural southern or midwestern community. Does no one get bullied in the city? Is city bullying different? Lesbian teen Kelby, an evident butch jock-type, is maligned for her open homosexuality, while the simply awkward Alex is frequently chastised with the word faggot. The connection is not coincidence, nor acknowledged.
Bully's generic tagline, which could apply to pretty much any given activist documentary, is “It's time to take a stand.” Aside from the obvious platitudes urging kids not to be mean to one another, the primary form of action advocated in the hasty conclusion is to hold a lot of candlelight ceremonies and awareness rallies.
What the film never significantly acknowledges is the social structures that lay the groundwork for this bullying behavior. Might Kelby's plight, and the taunting of Alex with faggot, have something to do with Bible-based biases, or that one of the two contenders for the American presidency proudly and vocally espouses that gays shouldn't have equal rights? The problems may wind up in the schools, but they start at churches and city halls, in state capitols and media campaigns. While Hirsch understandably is trying to keep his movie focused on the subject at hand, the subject itself is at the nexus of too many other concerns.
But Bully's most glaring oversight is stupefyingly obvious: We never hear from the bullies themselves. A few of Alex's tormenters are filmed when they're called to the principal's office for a chat, but they're closed off in exactly the way you'd expect when confronted with an authority figure. If Hirsch can get footage of these children brutalizing one another, why not also sit them down and ask them why they do these things? The bullied may be the focus, but the attitudes of the bullies are an essential half of the equation.
Ultimately, Hirsch's well-intentioned film is just good enough to make a convincing argument that a better movie about the topic ought to be made.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.