Director: Lee Hirsch
Writer: Cynthia Lowen
It occurs to me that we as a society no longer care for facts. Even when investigating a particular topic, we tend to comfort ourselves with truisms that confirm our long-held beliefs rather than seek new data to challenge and expand our understanding of the world. Take, for example, Bully, which claims to follow the lives of five bullied children and their families during the 2009-2010 school year. Like An Inconvenient Truth (2006), Lee Hirsch’s documentary offers little in terms of research or insight, but critics will no doubt celebrate it because they agree with its cause.
As a result, instead of reviewing the flick, I find myself compelled to spend this paragraph proving my support of recent anti-bullying efforts. Some may shrug and say, “Kids will be kids,” forgetting that it’s our duty to educate them. Others may point out that bullying has existed for longer than any of us can remember, but one could argue the same about all forms of discrimination. Would that nullify Rosa Park’s historic protest or the last hundred years of Women’s Lib? I’ve thought about the issue, you see. I’ve even written and published about it. That doesn’t make Bully any less hallow.
Consider the movie’s misleading moniker, which suggests a glimpse into the mind of a mean kid. Granted, the original title, “The Bully Project”, sounds like a mad scientist is raiding detention halls to create some kind of Franken-Bully monster. As it turns out, Bully features neither. In fact, Hirsch never even takes the time to define bullying as a phenomenon, content to stick the camera in front of a bunch of prepubescent outcasts and milk their sob stories to remind us that bullying is bad. This irks me for several reasons.
For one, every bullying dynamic involves three parties: the bully, the bullied, and the bystanders. Guess which of these proves the least interesting case study. Getting strangled on the bus makes a child sad. Duh. I want to know what prompts mean kids to harass someone that way and why everyone else accepts this behaviour. In fairness, Bully does spend some time exposing the educators’ general ineffectiveness as well as their tendency to resent bullied students for putting their quick-fix approach into question. However, the argument feels a bit one-sided, such as when a teacher points out that the schools can only do so much without the parents reinforcing proper conduct. That’s a fair point, but the film never acknowledges it.
Instead, Bully goes out of its way to portray its subjects as kind-hearted angels who surely don’t merit this treatment, going as far as linking one boy’s uncommon appearance (the source of his ridicule) to a premature birth. No scientific evidence is offered, of course, but who cares? Is the director suggesting it’d be okay to harass twelve-year-old Alex if he had no medical reason for looking different? More to the point, it oughtn’t to matter whether these children come across as innocent darlings or stupid annoying mutants. No one should get slammed against the windshield of a moving car or receive elaborate death threats on a daily basis. By suggesting these kids in particular don’t deserve to get bullied, Hirsch inadvertently promotes the idea that others do.
To make matters worse, he plays up the bullied students’ victimisation to the point of making their situation seem hopeless. Consider Kelby’s sudden disappearance after the first act. Out of all, the homosexual teen suffers the most outrageous transgressions, often from the adults in her life, but her response proves too bright, witty, and adjusted to explore further. This manufactured image of helplessness serves the documentary’s campaign, but what message does it send troubled kids already prone to drastic measures? Lest we forget, the Weinstein Company fought tooth and nail for a rating that would allow impressionable minds in the audience.
Forgive my cynicism, but the children deserve better than a self-serving stab at the hot topic of the day. I don’t just mean the charming boys and girls in the movie, whom I’m happy to have got to know a bit, but also the ones getting exposed to this wrong-headed propaganda. Bully isn’t just bad filmmaking. It’s bad rhetoric: empty and manipulative. If pointing this out makes me a bad person, then please let the lynch mobs steal my gym clothes and dunk my head in a toilet bowl.