Bully (documentary)

I don’t know what it will take to eliminate bullying among young people. Better parenting, more effective school policies, possibly some reprogramming of basic human nature. “Bully,” a somber documentary by Lee Hirsch, doesn’t have any answers either. But it does shine a light on the problem by relating the experiences of several American kids whose lives have been made miserable by their peers. This is probably a good start.

We meet Alex, a gawky 12-year-old Iowa boy whose small frame, unhandsome face, and timidity have made him a target for the a-holes he goes to school with. (I’m guessing being followed around by a camera crew did not help.) He doesn’t get much physical abuse; as with most of the kids featured here, it’s verbal and emotional bullying that torments him. We witness a particularly jarring incident on the school bus between Alex and a classmate whose cruelty is so matter-of-fact it can only be the result of much practice.

Then there’s 16-year-old Kelby, whose life in a small Oklahoma town has been hell ever since she came out as a lesbian, with schoolmates and even many adults openly persecuting her. Her supportive parents offered to move the family away, but Kelby refused: “If I leave, they win.” In Mississippi, a 14-year-old girl named Ja’Maya is in juvenile detention after relentless bullying led her to do something rash. Elsewhere, we meet the families of bullied kids who committed suicide, now working to raise awareness of the problem.

Hirsch treats his subjects as sensitively and non-exploitatively as it is possible to do when making a documentary about kids who probably do not need a lot more scrutiny in their lives. It’s heartbreaking to see them keep pluggin’ away in spite of it all, especially when we see their loving parents’ frustration and helplessness.

Speaking of frustration, Hirsch includes a few scenes with an assistant principal at Alex’s school whose cluelessness might make her the new face of administrative ineptitude. She and her colleagues have no idea how to actually solve the problem of bullying, so instead they downplay its severity, subtly shift the blame back to the victims, spout a lot of platitudes, and claim to be on top of things. (You might recognize these tactics from the last time you went through airport security.)

To me, that feels like the theme of the film. We know kids shouldn’t treat each other like this, harassing their peers into suicide, but we don’t know how to make them stop. Understanding what makes the bullies act the way they do would help; the movie doesn’t explore that angle, so we don’t get any insight there. We also don’t get much in the way of encouraging bullying victims to hang in there because life will get better. “Bully” starts a conversation that hopefully will be continued by people who can make a difference.

B (1 hr., 39 min.; PG-13, three F-words, other profanity, intense themes.)