The new documentary “Bully” is every bit as blunt and straightforward as its title: Director Lee Hirsch travels the country, introducing us to the kids being bullied by their classmates, and to surviving parents whose children could no longer handle the relentless taunting and took their own lives. Occasionally, you get glimpses of the bullies themselves, diffident in the presence of adult authority, but shockingly aggressive as they punch and spew slurs at their victims.
You could nitpick this film all day long: Hirsch sometimes has trouble keeping the image in focus. In choosing to spotlight kids in rural communities, he unintentionally diminishes the problem. And the movie barely touches upon cyber-bullying – the Facebook posts and text-message taunts that make bullied kids these days feel as if it truly never ends.
But what’s striking about “Bully” is that, even as the film maintains a fly-on-the-wall perspective, it nonetheless manages to make a ferociously political point. Whether it’s the clueless vice principal who chides a bully’s victim for not readily accepting his bully’s “apology,” or the parents who repeatedly insist that their bullied son stand up for himself, the film shows us adults who just don’t get it, or who don’t have the integrity or intelligence to effect large-scale culture change. (If you thought “Waiting for Superman” presented a damning portrait of public school teachers and administrators, wait until you see this.)
“Bully” arrives with a PG-13-rating; a few curse words were edited out to secure the more permissive rating. Having not seen the unrated version, I can’t compare, but there seems nothing diluted about the scenes where a boy sits anxiously on a bus, trying to smile through the litany of abuse.
Even if the entire MPAA ratings hullabaloo was coordinated for publicity, there are certainly worse sins, especially if it means this movie reaches a wider audience. I can’t say I walked out of “Bully” feeling optimistic – the movie ends with a plea for change through dialogue, but in the film, we mostly see adults leading the dialogue. Yet if even one young person watches it and learns the value of resisting the stultifying authority of feckless grown-ups, and demanding new policies and laws in their schools and communities, then it will be invaluable.