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Bully | Review

Survival Games: Lee Hirsch Lands on Hot Topic Issue

For today’s contemporary parents with means, there might not be a stronger argument for homeschooling available than Lee Hirsch’s latest documentary, Bully, to solidify its advent in their minds. With this well made but exhausting effort, Hirsch and co-director Dwyer aren’t stating anything innately revolutionary or groundbreaking, but they’ve created a package that succeeds in stressing an urgent need for change in the rearing and socialization process of children, and that bullying is not an acceptable rite of passage.

Bully focuses on five intimate stories from families located in the South and Mid-West, filmed over the course of 2009/2010. Three of these stories focus on young teenagers currently suffering from abusive scenarios created by their peers. There’s Alex, a 12 year old from Sioux City, Iowa, facing extremely abusive bullying on the school bus as he enters middle school; Kelby, a 16 year old from Tuttle, Oklahoma, once an athlete that is now ostracized, along with her family, after coming out as a lesbian; and Ja’Meya, a 14 year old in Yazoo County, Mississippi, a quiet young lady that brandished her mother’s handgun on a schoolbus after continually being taunted.

The other two stories concern parents of teens that committed suicide to excessive bullying, David and Tina Long, and Kirk and Laura Smalley. Throughout each of their narratives, the common thread is that it doesn’t necessarily get better, and, in fact, often gets worse. School administrators aren’t able to properly control or punish children (in the case of Kelby, it’s clear that school administrators are part of the monstrous problem when it comes to LGBT issues), parents of problem students engaging in bullying behavior aren’t held accountable for the behavior of their child, bus drivers aren’t responsible for monitoring bullying, and laws pertaining to minors more often hinder than help teenagers in abusive situations. Amidst this unending cycle of futility and hopelessness, families like the Smalleys and the Longs create glimmers of hope in their crusade to end bullying, demanding accountability and establishing anti-bullying organizations like Stand for the Silent.

There are moments in Bully that are devastating and beautifully rendered, but the most powerful aspect of Hirsch and Dwyer’s documentary may be the controversy sparked over its ridiculous R rating from the MPAA. While unaware that they’re being filmed or monitored, several adolescents use foul language, and the F bomb rears its head a few times. Using this word more than once is enough to land a film an R rating. To state the obvious, the teenagers using the foul language can’t even legally see themselves in the film. All of this really relates to responsibilities assigned to minors. Children are far from innocent beings, yet we have archaic censorship laws in place that won’t even allow us to let teenagers legally watch their own monstrous behavior. If seeing constitutes believing and you never have to see yourself, does that mean you don’t have to believe that your behavior is abusive?

Due to a rash of highly publicized suicides, the hot button issue of bullying is finally being touted as rampant problem in American schools, though it’s a problem older than the institutions it terrorizes. But the problem isn’t going to be solved simply by the outspoken outrage of enraged parents. The foundational problem is not even just the education system, but the unrealistic and archaic manner with which we approach children and issues surrounding children. There’s a major disconnect with what we allow them to watch and what we teach them. Life’s not a PG film and since educators can only approach teenagers as PG rated adults no one knows how to handle their already R rated behavior and the overtly adult scenarios that appear in the unmonitored spaces of the playground, the school bus, the shopping mall, etc.

The innocence of childhood seems prized above all else, but truth be told, innocence is taken as soon as your child is introduced to their peers. While it’s important to hear the stories of the teenagers and the parents in Bully, the film’s strongest weapon is its insistence on pointing out the disconnect between what it’s like to be a teenager and the lies of reality we only allow them to see. Alex’s parents are shocked when they finally watch the school bus footage of the hellish situation their son faces every day. They knew he was teased, but they didn’t know the extent of the bullying. Their reaction is why people need to see this film. Bully isn’t saying anything new, but it is asking us to look at the sickening reality of condoned bullying. But, as if from some Orwellian nightmare, those who need to see it most get no admittance.

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Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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