This is going to be one of the most difficult film reviews I’ve ever written. I’ve lobbied hard for Bully. When the MPAA slapped it with an R rating (for six non-sexual utterances of the word “fuck”) I did whatever I could to try and amend that decision. I blogged about getting the film appealed to a PG-13 rating, signed petitions, marketed the cause to friends, and so on. It was important for two reasons: one, the MPAA has long since needed a very hard kick in the ass, and Bully was the perfect opportunity to dish it out. Secondly, I fought for the film because Bully was a movie people needed to see. It was going to be hard hitting and honest. It was going to change things.
And here’s where the difficulty of this review comes into play… while the MPAA certainly was given a thorough ass kicking (Bully was recently re-rated PG-13), the film, I shamefully report, is nowhere near as good as it should be. It’s timid, clumsy, and most significantly, void of any form of resolve. It is a noble misfire if there ever was one.
Bully chronicles a handful of stories of bullying throughout small town America. There’s Alex, a 12-year-old kid who clearly doesn’t comprehend the full horror of his situation; an athletic, straight A student who brought a loaded gun on a school bus to get bullies off her back; a lesbian who was denounced by her school and town for coming out; quiet parents grappling with the recent suicide of their son, and so on. The stories themselves speak volumes – make no mistake, Bully documents pure adolescent hell that may very well move you to tears.
It also, rather flawlessly, captures how ill-equipped many school officials are at handling extreme cases of bullying. There’s an assistant principal in the film, for example, who delivers the most terrifying performance I’ve seen in a movie in years. She’s a woman so far out of her depth, without the slightest clue on how to handle adolescent aggression, that she should immediately be removed from her position and not allowed within 100 yards of children for the rest of her life. In one heartbreaking scene, she tells an innocent, bullied kid that he is the one responsible for attracting aggressors (which could not be further from the truth).
So, don’t get me wrong, Bully aims to do great things. What it manages to catch on camera is rather frightening. Alex, for instance, is the victim of several horrendous acts of violence on his school bus. They’re so bad that I’m wondering who filmed the scenes, and how. (Did a child have the camera? Was an adult sitting there the whole time?) But the problem of the film is that it doesn’t push its issue hard enough. It’s almost as if director Lee Hirsch elected to pull his punches and not show really how bad it can get. This is an unspeakable shame. Hirsch clearly had unprecedented access to the hallways of the American public school system, and what he came out with is a few cuts and bruises, when he should’ve been going for the jugular. Alex, in my opinion, is an American hero, and his story deserves better.
A final quarrel: I don’t watch documentaries to have a message impacted on me. If a film does have a message, that’s fine, but I don’t think it’s a requirement of the genre. Knowing that, Bully does virtually nothing to help cement its stance. Are bullied kids supposed to play nice and warm up to their bullies? Are bullies supposed to know better? Are parents supposed to step in more? Is violence the answer? I have no idea, and neither does Hirsch’s film.
Tweets like this, as it were, could not be more accurate:
Bully is a well intentioned film that may have changed the MPAA’s failed position on foul language in movies, but the film itself is far too reserved to be labeled as anything but mediocre. Remember, a noble failure. C