When I was a freshman in high school, I remember a day when the entire band was gathering in the hallway to go outside for marching practice when a senior came up to me and handed me an empty 7-Up can. He asked if I would hold it while he tied his shoe, but after I took it he simply walked away and stood on the other side of the room.
This was harmless, but you could say it was a form of bullying. He had duped me into taking the damn thing, and everyone saw it happen. It was enough of an embarrassment for them to laugh at me still holding it like an idiot and being confused as to what happened.
But I was lucky and arguably changed how that student saw me for the next year. I took the can and threw it at his turned back. Not hard, but enough for him to know I’d done it. Everyone saw that too, and he said, “Okay, I like you,” before turning to my friend and jokingly saying, “You’re next.”
I was a target, however briefly, and it’s something most kids know throughout their entire childhood lives. Yet some kids are more targeted than others and are unable to cope. When that happens, it can lead to tragedy.
Such is the focus of “Bully,” a documentary that earned a lot of buzz because of its unfortunate debacle with the MPAA Ratings Board. Harvey Weinstein lobbied intensely for Lee Hirsch’s film to be seen by kids and teenagers so they could see students just like them going through similar hardships. But much as the film demands change, it struggles to find an answer outside of letting kids know this is happening.
There’s a scene early in the film where 12-year-old Alex Libby is playfully wrestling with his sister. “Body slam,” he shouts as he leaps onto her lying on the bed. They roll around and frolic, and you realize for a moment that perhaps all playing is somewhat aggressive. Earlier, she even called Alex “fish face” just like the people at school do. Fighting is built into our society. It’s a fact of life.
The teachers in Alex’s school treat bullying as a natural part of child development too. They shrug it off and tell the kids to “just work it out.” The parents and the filmmakers know that bullying shouldn’t just be a given, but they don’t have an adequate response to what should be done. “Bully” never asks why people are bullied, only saying instead that it happens.
And we see it first hand from the perspective of three victims, Alex, Kelby and Ja’Maya. Alex is awkward and creepy, Kelby is an out-of-the-closet lesbian, and Ja’Maya is a nerdy honors student. They’re good kids and don’t deserve any of the mental or physical abuse they receive. Ja’Maya is even driven to hold the bullies hostage when she brings a gun on the school bus, and suddenly she’s forced to pay the price.
But we’ve only met the victims, never the bullies themselves. The movie perhaps wisely never fully identifies or antagonizes any of the children, but it consequently treats bullies as some distant, authoritarian figures that need to be stopped.
In seeking change, “Bully” goes about it all wrong. The teachers accept the problem, but the parents demand some sort of justice. Alex’s parents complain to the school’s principal that Alex is not safe on the bus, and then they say that she “politician-ed” them when she claims she’ll do all she can. They hold a town meeting looking for an answer when there’s no simple one.
Bullying is not a systemic problem. It is a societal one. Understanding why children bully and hate is as deep a cultural issue as those surrounding racial and gay rights. The lesbian girl Kelby’s bullying most certainly goes beyond playground roughhousing or name-calling. No law or punishment will alter the established cultural norms that our American society is a competitive one. This stems back to the idea that bullying could be solved if only the parenting was better, and one mother even complains that certain parents simply couldn’t care less.
But if “Bully” cared to look, it may find that not all bullies are intrinsically evil or vindictive children. Many of them probably do not come from broken homes with uncaring or oblivious parents.
I say this because I watch these kids give threats that don’t seem particularly mean but are merely striving to be creative. One kid tells Alex he’ll rip out his Adam’s Apple, and that will kill him. Another says he’ll “cut his f***ing face open.” Where do they come up with this stuff? How insecure and naïve are these kids in the real world that they feel they have to say those things?
“Bully” would rather serve only as a tearjerker. The film is excellent at isolating different sources of abuse and making us feel sympathy for the victims. But as these kids get more miserable by the day and the movie provides no answers, that too feels like its own form of abuse.
Note: I saw the PG-13 rated version of “Bully.” It had perhaps three quick uses of the F-word in close succession, along with other uses of the words “pussy” or “bitch.” There is nothing in the film that would make it intrinsically inappropriate for children or teenagers to watch. It is however exposing children to the same kind of hardship they may genuinely know on the bus or at school.