Director Lee Hirsch, he himself a victim of bullying as a child, has taken to uncover the rampant and deathly epidemic that has developed over the last decade. Bully is a well-made, incredibly intimate and often heart-wrenching look into what is clearly the most troubling trends afflicting schools across the United States and the world.
The film primarily follows Alex, a thoroughly endearing though awkward bespectacled 13-year old from Sioux City, Iowa; a boy meant to be representative of countless more his age. He is tormented by his peers who he confuses for friends, his problems go often ignored by school administrators, and while clearly loving and respecting his parents and siblings, he confronts great difficulty in discussing these issues with them. Issues, it becomes clear, that he is not certain are as serious as they really are in fact.
Paralleling the Alex story is that of David and Tina Long, parents of teenage Tyler who hung himself after excessive bullying, who campaign to bring awareness and substantive action to the cause.
There is Kelby, a teenage lesbian living in Oklahoma who shunned by her classmates, teachers, and townspeople, forcing her and her family to contemplate relocation.
Then there is Ja’Maya, a young African American teenager who was bullied, pushed to an extent that she lost control and took a gun to school, an act that sent her to jail. There is Kirk Smalley, father whose son, only 11 years old, committed suicide.
From the classroom to the bus, to the playgrounds and homes, these children face isolation, torment, and abuse.
Horribly troubling, incredibly compelling, and indeed inspiring, ‘Bully’ successfully shines a direct light on a rarely acknowledged plague affecting children. Every story is painfully real, and at times is shockingly disturbing.
Mr. Smalley’s case may offer to many however, one of the most interesting, especially for urbanites with stereotypes about those from the country, or Canadians with ideas about rural Americans as he seems to typify these ideas. In a very earnest moment, asking why this tragedy has happened, he says, “we’re nobody.” His strong emotions and later positive actions, though, are not produced because of where he lives or what he does for a living—they are elicited because he is a father. And it is that love for a child, that familial bond, that belief that children should grow up without such grave pressures and despair in lives, that is universal.
The problem, the documentary argues, is multi-faceted, but ultimately stems from a severe lack of understanding and education. Bullying is regarded as juvenile playfulness while what is actually happening is far more harmful. Teachers are not trained to deal with, children don’t know how to report it and when they do, confronting blank stares makes only makes them less trustworthy.
Kim Lockwood comes off as one of the villains, quite easily, with appalling comments and actions that show a complete lack of understanding and regard for the situation. And it is easy to make her the scapegoat, but the problem is clearly much larger. It stems from a lack of education imparted upon teachers and administrators to handle the situation and involves a generation that for whatever reason—social media, entertainment, what have you—is more prone to intense bullying than previous ones.
During a panel after the Toronto premiere, Hirsch explained that Lockwood stood up and spoke following the showing of the movie in Sioux City. Apologizing and explaining admittedly that she not only egregiously mishandled the situation, she said she was not prepared and qualified to correctly deal with it. She is not the villain, but representative of the problem.
‘Bullying’ as it has come to be known is an inaccurate description of what is happening; in our lexicon it is regarded as ‘kids being kids’ and more as playful antics than the assault, harassment, and intimidation it really is.
The film does not delve into the world of ‘cyber-bullying,’ which itself could be an equally powerful and disturbing documentary. It does however show that victims are numerous, the problem is extremely dire, but that a solution is very real and obtainable.
As families and supporters gather at the end of the film at rallies around the globe in support of the anti-bullying campaign, Mr. Smalley gives a simple yet moving speech, urging children to spot people in need of a friend, or a word of praise, or a positive gesture. As depressing and emotionally draining the film is at times, it is ultimately inspiring, and certainly not a cause that will be taken lightly.