I’ve always been a believer that a reader needs to know that criticism of a film is coming from an honest place that sometimes gets swayed by personal and professional experience. There are some things in movies that press deeply personal buttons or hit nerves and scars that haven’t yet healed, and that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong to admitting who you are as a person because at the end of the day and above all else a film review is an opinion piece that reflects every facet of the writer’s knowledge. So when I say that Lee Hirsch’s much buzzed about documentary Bully is both a deeply affecting and vital film AND that one that has severe problems and potentially dangerous implications, I think you guys as readers should know exactly where I’m coming from on this.
Let’s start even before I even saw the film a second time a week ago and before I saw it for the first time at HotDocs (where it was purchased by the Weinstein Company) almost a year ago.
Back in grades 5 to 8 I was a victim of bullying, both physically and mentally. I grew up in suburban Massachusetts where I was easily one of the poorest kids in the school. How poor, you might ask? Well, I had to wear sweatpants to school almost every day because my unemployed father and my alcoholic, waitress mother couldn’t afford to buy me more than one pair of actual pants every year. Jeans were out of the question. My shirts were handed down so much from family and friends that felt sorry for us that I was easily out of style by about ten years. It didn’t help that I lived in the “poor” section of town that bordered the big city next door, or that the rest of the town was intensely wealthy.
You really couldn’t have painted a bigger target on my back if you tried. There was nothing I could do right to please these kids or to try to change my image. I couldn’t stop caring and turn into a burnout. I couldn’t invite them to my house for any sort of get togethers or parties. I couldn’t become a sports nut. I couldn’t even commit suicide properly. And yes, for those of you wondering, I did try, so when Hirsch makes a big deal about kids being driven to that level at the start of his documentary, the uninformed should know that it’s definitely a real thing that happens.
Things did get better when high school actually hit, for a variety of reasons. I just stopped caring what everyone else though of me and just focused intensely on getting the hell out of town. Everyone else matured quite a bit, and the administration at the high school was vastly better at dealing with problems regarding bullying and fighting than the principal of the junior high was.
But, still, I’ll never forget those shitty Junior High years even though I’ve suffered worse life defining tragedies since then. Getting picked on by boys and girls on a daily basis to and from school on that bus; being challenged to fights for no reason and coming home bloodied and bruised; having girls spit on me because they thought it was funny; being pushed down a flight of stairs for wearing a hand me down Vancouver Grizzlies shirt when I couldn’t name a single player on the team; standing on the railing of a large staircase ready to jump and having someone right below me begging me to do it. Yeah, I’ve been there, done that, and gotten the Grizzlies T-shirt.
Bully goes inside the lives of bullying victims in ways that other documentaries would probably be afraid to. There’s Alex from Sioux City, Iowa, a bespectacled and fragile 12 year old from a big family who acts as the film’s most prominent focal point. His story shows the true Fight Club styled mentality of the everyday bus ride, and a child’s fear to ever be straight with his parents because he’s afraid it will hurt his chances of ever becoming friends with his tormentors. But his story also serves to be the most problematic and dangerous element in the film. More on that in a little bit.
Jameya Jackson from Yazoo County, Mississippi finds herself in a juvenile detention centre and without a potentially life altering basketball scholarship who got sick of the mental anguish she endured and decided to bring a handgun on the bus. The incident warranted no leniency from local law enforcement since there were no physical injuries she ever suffered. In the film, Jameya is looking at 22 individual counts of kidnapping and assault, enough to put her away for “hundreds of years” in the eyes of the local sheriff.
Hirsch doesn’t only deal with the heartbreaking stories on the front lines, but also those of the parents who have lost children to suicide. The film opens on the tear drenched face of David Long, whose son Tyler died so recently before filming that his grave doesn’t have a headstone yet. Tyler was tormented so thoroughly that when he was told to “go hang himself” he did just that. There’s also the family of Ty Fields, an Oklahoma boy whose death sparks his hunting enthusiast father on a crusade for nationwide change.
In the film’s brightest spot, if there really is one, is Kelby, a 16-year old lesbian from Oklahoma who was driven from her school’s basketball team for coming out. Her entire family (who used to be Sunday school instructors) were isolated from the rest of the town, and despite her best efforts, Kelby might not be able to make a go of attending her old school anymore. But in an interesting note that the other stories are missing, Kelby has a core group of friends who stand by her side no matter what and a supportive girlfriend. Kelby still gets down, but she’s developed a thick skin and a life philosophy that can hopefully transfer to any abused child who views the film.
The same goes for every story, really. These kids and parents are more than enough to recommend the film. They make up part of a vital document that really should be viewed by anyone and everyone who has ever had or plans on having a child. Bullying is a real problem that has to be combated on many levels, and just by hearing and seeing what these young adults go through it helps to create a necessary dialog.
But now that dialog gets a bit muddied by Hirsch’s obvious desire to turn this film into a soapbox focusing on only one aspect of the bullying epidemic: the role of school administration. When David Long and his wife attempt to get answers from the school board as to why their son had to die, the local police department shows up, but school officials refuse to make an appearance to the town hall style meeting to listen to the concerns of other parents and tearful students. In an even worse, and even more infuriating sub-story, Alex’s school is run by Assistant Principal Kim Lockwood, who might be the most infuriating school administrator ever put to film in fiction or documentary. Lockwood deals with fights simply by making kids shake hands and apologize. She wants everyone to be friends and does absolutely nothing other than giving kids empty platitudes that in some cases outright blame the victim when Hirsch’s footage shows evidence to the contrary.
Granted, school administration constitutes a huge part of the bullying epidemic when they improperly police their students, but Hirsch has crafted a film that almost wants to throw an entire profession under the bus. It’s hard not to shy away from inept administration types when you’re a documentarian and you have evidence as good as Kim Lockwood, but at the same time when dealing with a hot button issue experienced by more people than one would expect, a balanced viewpoint is necessary for the argument to hold any weight, and sadly Bully might be one of the most imbalanced social reform documentaries I’ve ever seen.
Hirsch doesn’t look at any of the other numerous causes for bullying. There’s none of the socio-economic subtext that I KNOW from experience exists. The film wants to be so derogatory towards school administration in such a blanket manner that no actual bullies or parents of bullies are seen. Which, you know, fair enough since who wants to go on camera to talk about how much of an asshole their kid is, but by that same token not once does Hirsch ever look the evil in the face.
All schools profiled are from rural southern or middle America. There are no city schools to show how different things are in those environments. We don’t see the administrations of any school other than the one attended by Alex. When the issue of law enforcement is brought up, their remarks seem curiously cut from the film, and even worse there are absolutely no examples of schools that are getting it right when it comes to curtailing bullying. I know for a fact that not every school is this awful. A quick scan of numerous websites for high school both public and private and in the U.S. and Canada show plainly their anti-bullying efforts. Maybe another reason why my high school experience was better than in junior high was because the high school I attended had a zero tolerance policy when it came to fighting and bullying resulting in immediate expulsion. But no, Hirsch doesn’t want to show the positive. That’s not what he wants to do, at all. He wants one microcosm to stand for all.
There’s nothing at all here to offset the gloom and doom other than Kelby’s somewhat positive storyline. Hirsch wants to depress the hell out of you and he’s willing to do it by any means possible. His use of a post rock ambient musical score and constantly artful DSLR camera work is far too calculated to suggest the fly on the wall stance. Even the very way the film is put together suggests a heavily implied manipulation to bring audiences around to seeing things exactly Hirsch’s way.
In an interesting bit of the film which again raises the question of a documentarian’s relationship to his subjects, the unseen Hirsch hands over his footage of Alex being tormented and actually stabbed with pencils on the bus ride home to the principal of his school, and wisely bypassing Lockwood altogether. The problem is that we don’t know exactly what footage Hirsch has shown the administration, and if the issue was as bad as Alex getting stabbed, doesn’t this become a criminal matter to get the police involved with? The scene that he sets up instead further shows the ineffectual nature of the administration by waltzing all the bullies into the principal’s office one by one and watching them lie as they get slapped on the wrist and sent back to class.
This begs the question, again, as to why Hirsch never turned that footage over to the police. The answer seems to be two-fold: because it doesn’t forward his thesis that bullying begins and ends entirely with school administration and because it wouldn’t be cinematic I he did turn it over.
All of this sounds like I hate the film, but I don’t. I honestly can’t with what I’ve been through. The stories of these kids are vital and deserve to be heard, and for what its worth, when you send your kids to school you want to know that the people looking after them are keeping them safe. Ineffective administration undoubtedly has to be addressed in many cases, but average thinking people should know deep down that there’s far more to this issue than what Hirsch presents. Especially in an American climate where everyone is looking to blame someone else for their own shortcomings, not taking even a passing look at the causes of poverty or the role of the parents makes the film’s soapboxing half-assed and almost entirely invalid.
Despite all of that, these kids deserve to be heard and they’ve been through too much to be ignored. It captures better than any other film a depression that’s very real, and if it gives one child hope and the understanding that they aren’t alone, I’m deeply grateful that the film was made at all. And if you have children in school and this doesn’t make you want to talk to them or give them the biggest hug in the world, there might be something wrong with you.
Which brings me finally around to the antiquated and out of touch MPAA in the States slapping a R-rating on Hirsch’s film for a scene of foul language. The rating which states that children under 17 must be accompanied by a parent or guardian to see the film is patently ludicrous and should be used as evidence by someone or some body of people to overthrow the entire organization. Over a decade ago, Stephen Daldry’s Billy Elliot was originally slapped with an R-rating because the British film about a young man wanting to be a ballerina featured quite a bit of foul language in such a genial film. The swears were largely dubbed in the States to get a PG-13, but the MPAA’s original reasoning was because they didn’t think that people in Middle America talked with such salty tongues. Hirsch’s documentary exposes the MPAA’s utter hypocrisy by delivering a film that takes place directly in the land of the people they look to protect and it proves that even kids use such language colloquially. I guess once you set a precedent for stupidity, you can’t go back on it even a decade later.
Directed by: Lee Hirsch
Top image: A scene from Bully. Courtesy Alliance Films.