Alex Libby in the documentary film, ‘Bully.’ (PHOTO SUPPLIED)
By Bernie Jablonski
As far as documentaries that try to make a point or promote change (as opposed to displaying an objective point of view or presenting visual poetry) go, Bully certainly knows which buttons to push. I’m not saying that it’s any more manipulative than any documentary that appeals to our hearts (and maybe minds) by just presenting the facts: it ain’t Michael Moore. It is moving as it tells the story of about a half-dozen middle- and high- school kids who have been victimized by bullies. However, with only a few very paltry presentations of the point of view of the bullies themselves, Bully leaves the “villains” (and trust me, I know they are not inherently evil people) out, so that the depth of the problem does not come across as powerfully as it can. But by presenting the reportage and memories, mostly, of the victims and their families, and then tying the stories into a mutual search for change, the movie does have an impact.
We don’t see interviews with the bullies (and certainly not their parents), but several adults speak up, with one inadvertently making an ineffectual fool of herself. We see an assistant principal at a middle school, a middle-aged woman who seems to have some kind of plan in mind for keeping the peace as she anxiously awaits the students to come through the doors, commenting on her thoughts through this period, and then keeping an eye on them as they go to their homerooms. When she is approached by a kid that can’t be older than six or seven, she asks why he is upset, and he tells her of an encounter with a bully he just endured. She listens, and then asks the young man what he would like her to do.
Is she kidding? I don’t know about anybody else, but at that age, I wasn’t ready to make any real decisions about altering the social structure, especially if I were feeling overwhelmed. She patiently listens, but when he doesn’t have an answer, sends him packing off to class, unsatisfied, leaving her watching after him, smiling.
It gets worse. Alex, one of the bullied students (at the same school) that is profiled in depth, is repeatedly and mercilessly taunted on the bus ride to school. When the parents finally become aware of the problem, they seek an audience with the assistant principal, who tells them that “boys will be boys” (is she kidding again?) and that she’s ridden on the bus with the students, and that they were as good as gold. (You saw that part in the commercial, right?) Does she know nothing about the Hiesenberg Uncertainty Principle, which states that if we observe behavior, the observation itself changes the behavior? Does she not realize that kids behave differently in front of adults than they do among their peers? We can’t count the poor bus driver, of course, who cannot pull the bus over every time she or he perceives a problem.
This part of the movie frustrates me the most. Bully does explore other victims, though, all of them from middle-class families. Alex’s parents go to another assistant principal, a far sharper tool in the shed, and that story thread moves into a more positive direction. Some of the stories, though, show how bullied kids sometimes feel so helpless that they end their lives. That was the case with Tyler, whose story is told mostly through his father, and this story bring great poignancy to the movie, and punctuates it as it shifts from child to child. It’s Tyler’s story, too, that unifies all the stories and moves Bully to its upbeat conclusion.
One young girl named Ja’Meya can’t take it anymore, and during one typically horrifying and demoralizing bus ride to school, she pulls out a gun and brandishes it at the student passengers, shouting threatening words while hanging at the end of her rope, and is subdued and then arrested for her act. In an interview, the Sheriff (who comes across as a man who is not a martinet, but does need to follow the law) explains that she faces forty-five felony charges, but instead of the hundreds of years she could have been in jail, she is lucky to get a relatively short sentence. What is really moving and hopeful about this interspersed sequence is the love that the girl’s mother never withdraws from her. The mother is bathed in the cold light of reality, and never lets her daughter forget the reality, but it is that willingness to stand by someone of one’s own blood who has screwed up, and guide her to the warm lights of freedom and redemption.
We get involved in the story of a young, very self-aware lesbian student. We learn about another student who commits suicide. We hear friends of the afflicted talk about how they felt they were unable to help, largely because they were being concurrently tortured by the same students. We see a little bit of the bullies being confronted by a higher authority. We see one family move to another state. We come to realize that the assistant principal mentioned earlier is trying to do something about the problem, if not with much efficacy. And we see how one father launches a program to start to bring about an end to the problem.
As I said before, we don’t really get the point of view of the bullies themselves, so rather than being a hard-hitting news report, Bully is probably the closest thing we’re going to get to a feel-good movie about the victims of bullies in middle school. That’s more of a compliment than a criticism. The movie works because it exposes the problem, supports the existence of the problem, and details a possible solution for that problem.
Now, too, it is possible for kids of the age group that Bully is focusing on to actually see it. You probably heard about the controversy between the Wienstein Company, the studio that made Bully, and the Ratings Board of the Motion Picture Association of America. The Board originally gave the film an “R” rating, based on the number of times some variation on the f-word was used in a scene on Tyler’s bus, a scene that sets up the whole movie. Rather than accepting the rating, the studio surrendered it and planned on releasing the movie unrated, a bold statement, but one that is often considered the Kiss of Death at the box office. Harvey Wiensteing appealed to the Board, and ultimately, three occurences of the F-word were removed, and the rating was changed to PG-13. You might want to take advantage of that and take your kids to the movie; teachers will find a lot to talk about after showing Bully in a class, too.
Once again, the incident is unfaltering proof that something needs to be done with the current ratings system. Doesn’t the use of an abusive word pretty much have its impact when it is first used in a scene? Doesn’t hearing it over and over only lessen its impact? Doesn’t basing a rating on the emotional impact a movie has rather than some arbitrary legal code make more sense? And not that I have kids, but hasn’t cable numbed them to the power of these words? The MPAA needs to let this go and focus on the often gory and gratuitous violence in film.
Harumph. And since I’m complaining, here’s something else: When is the Cultural Fly-over Zone going to be lifted off the Chicago Heights-Park Forest Metropolitan Area, and the rest of Chicago’s Far South suburbs? The movie is currently playing only in Oak Park, Evanston and Skokie, and only in Streeterville in the city (that would be the area east olf Michigan Ave. and north of the Loop). Streeterville is only a Metra train trip and a hearty walk away, but when will the theaters realize that we’re starved out here for this kind of movie?
Bernie Jablonski teaches Mass Media and Film Study in the Fine Arts Department at Marian Catholic High School.