The documentary Bully has generated a lot of pre-release buzz due to the MPAA’s insane decision to slap an R Rating on the movie. In a brilliant bit of marketing the folks at The Weinstein company launched a massive campaign to fight back and ultimately lost. They took out the “offending” scene so that they could get a PG-13 rating.
This being a lite weekend for movies, the controversy and subject matter got me into the theater. Director Lee Hirsch and writers Hirsch and Cynthia Lowen have crafted a documentary that holds your attention but is missing something. I’m not sure what. It suffers from the problem a lot of a documentary that “want to be real” suffers and that’s the explanation of the camera crew.
While watching the movie, I couldn’t help but feel like some of it was staged, specifically the primary story of Alex Libby an awkward, loner teen who gets bullied every day in school. Most of the bullying seems to occur on the school bus. We watch as kids punch him, hit him in the head with a pin and literally choke him and his non-response. At school he keeps to himself. The affect of the constant physical bullying is seen in his facial expressions and how he interacts with people.
All of this is compelling and moving, but the elephant in the room is the Camera. Are you telling me no one on the bus or at the school notices the camera crew following this kid around? In today’s society once the camera crew is noticed Alex would become instantly popular. If the kids did notice the camera then it stands to reason the bullying would probably be a lot worse off camera. The other issue with Alex’s story, while the bullying is clearly bad, it all seemed a bit sanitized.
The sad thing about this story is how the school bus driver does nothing, we actually see her smiling and the Principle of the school sees other kids being bullied and while she steps in, her methods of resolving conflict are ineffective. In one instance she sees two kids fighting and makes them shake hands. She reprimands the boy who was bullied because he refused to accept the other boy’s forced apology. How does this help anything?
Alex’s story ends on a hopeful not where we see him actually stalking to people and a couple of students asking him to sign their shirts at the end of the year. This was a jarring conclusion because we never see him befriending anyone.
Bully also interviews David and Tina Long two parents who lost their kid to teen suicide. He was bullied and couldn’t take it any longer. You really can’t help but feel for these parents, but looking at Tyler all smartly dressed in his ROTC uniform, its hard to believe that this kid was bullied to the point that he felt he had no other way out. This kid looked fit, handsome and like he would have ruled the school not been “ruled.”
Kelby Johnson is the token gay teen that has to be part of a movie like this. While her story is compelling, being a gay teen in Oklahoma must be hell; it was hard to feel a lot of sympathy for her because unlike poor Alex who had no one to protect him, Kelby seemed to have a pretty large group of loyal friends to surround herself with. As she says numerous times she appreciated her friends and credits them for helping her get through it all.
The movie lost me for a bit when the only black child that they could showcase was Ja’Maya a teenager who was in Juvenile Detention because she brought a gun to school to defend herself against people who were picking on her. While I felt sorry for her, I kept thinking to myself, “really, the only black bullied teen they could find is someone in Juvi?” Really?
After viewing the movie it is hard not to agree with old Harvey. Unless this movie was severely edited, the MPAA is truly out of their minds. There wasn’t a single thing in this movie that justifies the PG-13 rating that alone an R.
Beyond the camera being in the room, my other issue with the movie is the director totally ignores any discussion of what the root causes of bullying is and they never once talk to the bully or the parents of a bully. This movie would have been a lot stronger if it somehow managed to showcase the other side of this issue.
After watching this movie, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to take away from it – Bullying is bad? Ok. Let me be clear, I do not dislike this movie, I just think its a missed opportunity to really explore this issue from all angles instead after awhile it felt a bit shallow.