Saturday, May 5, 2012


 2.5 / 5 

The most depressing, disturbing moment in Bully comes not when any of the children who are its subjects are taunted and mocked, rather when a clueless assistant school principal tries to talk with one of the kids who's complaining about harassment.  No doubt imagining herself to be instilling the right values in the boy, she proves completely oblivious to the problems he's facing.

Throughout Bully, a documentary about school-age bullying, a problem hardly new to the 21st century, adults prove themselves to be either well-intentioned but admittedly unaware -- or, worse, utterly incapable of recognizing the magnitude of the behavior and the effect it has on the kids who are being tortured at school.

Bully received a lot of media coverage for its "R" rating, and finally bowing to the, well, bullying of the Motion Picture Association of America, the Weinstein Company cut out a few utterances of the f-word, even though they were lobbed at kids by other kids.  That's right, the MPAA felt that kids should not be allowed to watch the behavior of other kids without a parent accompanying them, a ludicrous position if ever there was one.

The attendant publicity served the film well, and more or less obscured the fact that, as a documentary, it's meandering and unfocused.  Its intentions are good; its execution somewhat less so.  Its makers clearly believe school-age bullying has transcended being a rite of passage and become a serious problem that has led to a rash of teen suicides and a rising tide of intolerance.

Bully tells the story of a handful of teenagers whose lives have been forever changed by no mere taunts, but by psychological and physical abuse that is so intolerable it leads two kids to kill themselves and another to bring a gun to school in an effort to put an end to the behavior.  Its primary subject is Alex, a boy who was born three months premature and who suffers physical and (apparently) mental problems because of it -- and whose days in middle school are unspeakably awful.

As a portrait of what life is like for some teen- and pre-teen kids, Bully shows that high school remains depressingly the same as it always was.  As a serious exploration of school-age bullying, it leaves a lot to be desired.  Most urgently, the movie never looks at the other side of the problem, doesn't make an effort even momentarily to get the perspective of the persecutors -- or the teachers and administrators whose impassivity is almost equally at fault.  One set of parents, in particular, seem so ill-equipped to be raising one child (much less four) that certainly they have played a part in the way their child faces the world, but Bully never brings us closer to them.

The kids are fascinating, but there are too many of them to get to know them well.  What does Alex himself think of his situation?  The filmmakers never stop to talk to him or get into his mind.  The little girl who brought the gun to school is seen but never heard from directly -- and it would be good (and vital) to know just what made a bright, achievement-oriented kid snap like that.  There's no such revelation to be had in Bully.

Bully insists there's a problem, almost an epidemic, but explores neither the cause nor the cure, just says the same thing over and over: It has to stop.  It's great as a rallying cry, not so good as a movie.

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