Editor’s note: After this story was posted, The Weinstein Company (TWC), aided by the guidance and consultation from attorneys David Boies and Ted Olson, announced late April 5 that the MPAA has lowered the R rating, given for some language, for “Bully” to a PG-13 in time for the film’s April 13 expansion to 55 markets. The scene that has been at the forefront of the battle with the MPAA, the intense scene in the film that shows teen Alex Libby being bullied and harassed on a bus, was edited for profanity.
Call-to-action documentary “Bully” opens with what has become, sadly, a pretty common occurrence: a kid reaches his breaking-point after relentless persecution at school, his father trying to keep it together for the camera as he retells his son’s suicide story.
The controversially R-rated film – unreasonably set by the out-of-touch MPAA for its six uses of the “f” word before The Weinstein Co. decided last-minute on an “unrated” release – is an upsetting, often disturbing, look at the harsh realities of being a kid.
One snippet early on is especially unshakeable: an administrator asks a young boy, no older than 6 or 7, how he feels when a bully calls him a “faggot.” Holding back tears, he meekly responds: “It breaks my heart.”
The film will, too.
A poignantly told work from The Weinstein Co., the frank eye-opener – directed by Lee Hirsch, whose resume includes the 2002 docu-film “Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony,” about the role of music in the South African struggle against apartheid, and directing Black Eyed Peas and John Legend videos – is essentially an expertly done PSA that tugs hard at the heartstrings with its unsettling glimpses into five victimized teens and their families during a single school year.
Twelve-year-old Alex Libby is the film’s glue, framing the other vignettes – Kelby Johnson, 16, who’s a lesbian living in the Bible Belt; Ja’Meya Jackson, 14, who fights back by bringing a gun to school – with the brutal story of his own bullying encounters: sat on, stabbed and slurred at, the Iowa boy’s first year in middle school is utter torture. He’s a loner and outcast (born 14 weeks premature, he’s called “fish face” for the way he looks), and he’s also become tragically desensitized to the abuse. And yet, somehow, he still maintains an optimistic disposition.
Kelby isn’t so dismissive about the adversity she faces and, as an out lesbian in small-town Oklahoma, plans – with her supportive parents on her side – to change minds. But the bullying just won’t let up: taunts force her out of school athletics and she’s hit by a minivan.
When the bullying gets to be too much for Ja’Meya, a Mississippi student, she takes action into her own hands one morning, scaring off her tormentors by bringing a loaded gun on the school bus. Charged with multiple felony counts, the incident lands her in juve. Her lash-out is hard to condone, but her sympathetic mother is still very supportive, and it’s still easy to empathize with the girl.
And as someone who was on the receiving end of the torment throughout middle school, I felt almost physically sick from watching these innocent kids face senseless abuse – while reliving my own hellish years through theirs – for being different.
We, of all people, know bullying is rampant – in fact, the issue only really surfaced after a string of gay kid suicides were initially reported in 2010 (the film was shot the same year). But “Bully” does more than track its obvious existence: It exposes the failings of the school system to protect children and, sad as it is, the helplessness of parents in the matter. Alex’s story is infuriating as the asinine, in-denial school administration throws out empty promises and tired kids-will-be-kids excuses, blaming the wrong people and completely disregarding complaints.
Hirsch commendably compiles expansive, real-life footage from a student’s life: the rowdy bus ride to school, the lonely lunch room scene, home discussions with the family, town meetings on bullying issues and even some beautiful purely aesthetic clips of the kids outside school, free from the adversity. It’s a bittersweet juxtaposition.
Small oversight: “Bully” is missing just that – none of the bullies are profiled as extensively as the bullied. If getting down to the problems linked to bullying is part of the film’s agenda, shouldn’t it be examining the biggest one: the bully itself?
But Hirsch characterizes his subjects well, and he does a wonderfully sensitive, in-depth job of putting a face on the innocent. However bullying has affected you – whether you’ve been bullied, your kids or friends have, or you were the bully – the film will move you, definitely emotionally but also, hopefully, into action, as it’s profoundly effective as a motivational awareness-raiser. It has a simple message we can all stand behind: enough is enough.