Lee Hirsch’s new documentary Bully is an undeniably powerful experience that at least wins points for having its heart in the right place even if it doesn’t quite offer as definitive of an examination as the subject deserves. Hirsh follows a handful of teens suffering from relentless beatings and name-calling as well as a few grieving parents whose pre-teen children took their own lives as a result of similar treatment. He’s clearly quite sensitive to what the kids are going through and manages to get some disturbing footage of the day-to-day reality of a helpless victim, but his approach to the subject is limited to that viewpoint without any voice given to the type of people he named the movie after. While that glaring absence is hard to ignore, what the director did capture is strong enough to give the doc a pass.
The main subject of the movie is Alex, a 12-year-old Iowa middle school student who all the kids call “Fish Face” on the good days. He’s a sweet and optimistic guy, but with social issues and an appearance not exactly on par with magazine models, and he’s an easy target for anyone wanting to mess with him. Hirsh captures classmates beating and relentlessly mocking him on the school bus (using salty language that infamously and originally earned the movie an R-rating in the US) as well as school administrators who dismiss his family’s concerns of abuse and somehow think bullying can be solved by a handshake in the hallway. Alex is admittedly a perfect subject for the movie and watching his heart-crushing story unfold gets across everything Hirsch wants to say in the film.
There are other teen subjects too, given less screen time because the filmmaker wasn’t able to get quite the same access through their respective school boards (and given how terrible the administrators come off in Alex’s story, that’s not really a surprise). There’s 16-year-old Kelby who came out as a lesbian in the Bible belt and ended being up harassed by even her teachers and at one point was purposefully hit by a car. Over in Mississippi, Hirsh found 14-year-old Ja’Meya who became so enraged by bullying that she stole her mother’s gun, brought it on the bus to vent her frustration, and ended up facing incarceration. Two other kids are also covered, but noticeable for their absence since they committed suicide, leaving behind grieving families to pursue national anti-bulling causes. All the stories are heartbreaking and illuminate the issue, but don’t’ quite have the immediacy of Alex’s section. It’s one thing to hear about the horrors of bullying, it’s quite another to see it happening between kids who seem in no way bothered by the fact that a camera is capturing their behavior. You’ve even got to wonder what else was happening when Alex didn’t have a camera pointed at him, given how uncomfortable he felt admitting to things that we can see happened.
Hirsch’s film definitely packs an emotional punch guaranteed to loosen up tear ducts and cause some healthy rage. In particular, footage of an assistant principal ignoring Alex’s abuse and refusing to even acknowledge bullying in her school is hard to stomach. As a heartfelt look at the painful existence of bullying victims, the documentary is impressive and sure to become mandatory viewing in many schools despite the swearing that the ridiculous MPAA refuses to acknowledge children actually engage in (thankfully the Canadian ratings boards have given PGs across the board).
However, as a grand statement about bullying, the movie feels somewhat limited. There are no positive stories here, none of the bullies are given a voice or reason for tormenting people beyond them being evil little shits, and there’s nothing really stated about the work done to fight the problem. I’m sure many will argue, “well, that’s just not what Bully is about.” That’s a fair argument, but given the wide release of this documentary and the fact that it’s already an important artifact illuminating the bullying issue, a more rounded approach would have been nice. The endless, hopeless tragedies presented in Hirsh’s film may elicit an immediate emotional response from the audience, but at times it can feel manipulative and leaves many threads dangling. As a means of starting a debate on the subject of bullying, the film certainly serves a purpose. It just feels somewhat incomplete.
Now, that said, Bully is still a strong and affecting documentary. Whatever material Hirsch may or may not have glossed over is compensated for by what he did manage to get. Making a documentary or even a fiction film about such a potent subject that covers ever facet of the issue would be practically impossible. The filmmaker’s victims-first approach does at least allow him to focus on that facet fully and explore it potently. Bully is certainly worthy of all this media attention because it’s extremely effective. It’s certainly one of the most emotionally involving films of 2012 so far, fictional or otherwise. While it will obviously never stop bullying (in fact, I’m sadly certain that many kids would merely snicker at Alex during school screenings without any empathy), at least it’ll bring the issue into the public consciousness for a little while until blockbuster season starts and we can all focus on other issues like whether or not Batman could totally beat up Iron Man if he really wanted to.