NOTE: This turned out to be a much more personal and emotional experience for me than I had anticipated. I cried several times, and called my parents after the movie was done. I was a victim of bullying in school, so it really hit home for me. There is considerable bias in this review toward that. This is something I acknowledge, and apologize in advance for. I strive for objectivity in my reviews (aside from being a fan of a specific filmmaker/writer/performer’s work), but this one isn’t 100% objective. There are going to be personal asides sprinkled throughout, I’ll italicize so you can ignore, if you want. Just so you know, going in.
I’ve been following this documentary since an early trailer was released over a year ago, and regularly checking in to see how development and distribution was coming along, hoping I’d have the opportunity to see this in theatres. Then it became this big story over the past few months, with the MPAA holding it hostage by way of an R rating (I don’t disagree with the rating system, I disagree with the methodology), Weinstein Company choosing to release it unrated, then it finally getting the PG-13 without significant cuts. I’m glad it was able to get a wide release, and is able to reach a larger audience. I was most pleased that when I was sitting in the theatre with my aspiring documentarian cousin, I looked around and saw families settling in to see the film. Parents had brought their teen and pre-teen kids to see this film, which is what I think everybody involved (except the MPAA) wanted. And hopefully that leads to the families having conversations about bullying.
Bully focuses on several teens throughout the nation who have endured or are enduring bullying in school. The first family they spoke with, the Longs in Georgia, had lost their 17-year-old son Tyler to suicide. He had been bullied to the point that he felt that was the only option, as did 11-year-old Ty Smalley in Oklahoma. This hit a nerve, as that was a place I had been, also at 11 years old. That’s a very dark, confusing place to be at 11. They also spoke with families in Iowa, Oklahoma and Mississippi, and the children themselves are people anyone who was victimized will identify with on some level.
The main kid, Alex in Iowa, is a bullied kid who, from my perspective, is unsure of his support structure. He has loving parents who are behind him 100%. But he hides the extent of the bullying from them, internalizing a lot of it because he doesn’t feel he can talk about it. This was my mindset at that time in my life, as well. My parents didn’t know really know the full extent of it until just a few years ago. I really do feel for the kid because his story really shows the arrogant ignorance school officials have towards the issue of bullying. If they don’t see it, it clearly doesn’t happen, and when a victim is adverse to the bully’s faux-pology, the problem is with the victim.
Another story that echoes the “It Gets Better” campaign is of out lesbian Kelby from Oklahoma, which is a story that folds the teachers and townspeople into the list of bullies. Kelby’s story is another one that hits close to home because, as an atheist, this happens in our community a lot, see Damon Fowler and Jessica Ahlquist. These are people in authority the kids trust, who bully them for being who they are.
Finally there’s Ja’Maya, a 14-year-old girl from Mississippi who hit that wall… not the suicide wall, the “Bring a gun in retaliation” wall. She was being harassed on the bus ride to school so severely, she brought a gun with her and waved it her bully, which opened her to almost 50 felony counts (including kidnapping and aggravated assault). Ultimately all charges are dropped against her. Had I access to a weapon, that could have been me. I was fortunately removed from the situation before it got to that point.
One of the reasons this film resonated with me, and is important for young kids to see, is that it doesn’t aim to offer a solution or a fix. It aims to raise the discourse on the subject, and provide a conversation that isn’t being had, particularly among school officials. Hell, one of the administrators at the school Tyler Long attended denied that bullying was a problem, which goes back to the arrogant ignorance.
The one thing I wish they had really addressed was cyber-bullying. We live in the age of Web 2.0, and with it comes all new territory for bullies. A perusal of YouTube or news site comment sections will show you that anyone can (and will) anonymously call anyone a fag. Take that to Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Myspace (which some people still use), Formspring, or any other social network, not to mention the prevalence of mobile phones… I’m glad none of that existed in my day, but it’s a very real issue these days, and I wish they had brought that to the discussion.
Otherwise this is a very powerful, very important documentary to view, and I hope that it is show to more kids.