Thursday, April 19, 2012


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


  1. I've been very annoyed by these anti-bullying campaigns. I was pretty quiet about the film and what it was trying to do though it's intentions are good. That little tweet about niceness, I'm offended by that.

    If the 12-13 year old kid that I was back in middle school who was being tormented by bullies found out about that. I would've been extremely pissed off. I wish I had a fucking hammer and beat those fucking shits to a bloody pulp and maybe hammer the fucking teacher for not really doing anything.

    I find it ironic that all of this campaign to get the rating down was led by real bullies in the Weinstein Brothers. They're a bunch of fucking cocksuckers who should be getting their ass kicked by every filmmaker they tried to bully like Guillermo del Toro, Billy Bob Thornton, and Terry Gilliam.

    Man, fuck this movie!

  2. I've heard that this film turned out to be a disappointment (largely from Bret Easton Ellis's tweets, which you mentioned), but when it comes out, I'll certainly have to give it a look, though few things irritate me more than a film which tries to tackle a subject and does so improperly. It's sad that this film doesn't have the balls to be as honest as it should be. A few years after I finished high school, I learned of a kid in my area about ten years younger than me who was ambushed on the way home from school, tied up, had his pants removed and his balls burned with a cigarette. And it didn't even make the news.

  3. Well that's disappointing. I was intriguing by all the talk, but honestly pretty dubious about the whole thing. On the one hand I wondered what, if anything, they could possibly suggest as a blanket solution to a huge, very diverse problem. On the other, I wondered the same things about the depiction of cruelty. Who is filming these events?

  4. @thevoid99 Wow dude, your past experiences sound rough, and I'm truly sorry that you had to live through them. I was bullied in school as well, it sucked then, but I take solace in the fact that all the guys who used to bully me now tend bar or bus tables in the town we went to high school. My bullies peaked in high school, and hopefully you're like me and have plenty of peaking yet to do.

  5. @Tyler Jesus Christ, that is fucking repulsive. It's such a serious issue, and to have this movie pussy foot around the REAL issues is just goddamned aggravating.

  6. @Wilde.Dash Well, apparently, the director was one the one filming on the buses. I watched in interview on Good Morning America with him, and he said that after a while, the kids just "forgot" he was there. Seems... odd to me.