Over my lifetime, I’ve seen bullying from multiple vantage points. A tease, a name shouted out, a push. Most times it’s over in a moment and too easily forgotten, unless you’re the victim. It stings and festers while the rest of the world moves on unaffected. As a kid, I was both a victim and a silent witness. Today, I work with children and still see it. From all angles, it’s so easy to ignore and hope it all just resolves. Standing up and defending yourself or others is easier said than done, but the one thing Bully teaches us is that it is a necessity, if we ever want it to change.
The documentary follows multiple teenagers and their families showing their unique stories of being bullied. There’s Alex, a boy who is a helpless punching bag on his school bus. Kelby is a girl who recently came out as lesbian in her small town. She has attempted suicide, but her supportive family and friends have helped her reach a brighter place. Ja’Meya was a high achiever until felt that the only way to stand up to her bullies was to pull out a gun on them. We watch as she and her family await trial. Then there’s the tragic stories of Tyler and Ty, two boys who committed suicide to escape their bullying. Their parents cope and work hard to keep their son’s memories alive and start a movement to change the way bullying is handled across the nation.
For those who may still believe that bullying isn’t a big problem, or that it’s “just kids being kids”, they just need to watch a scene or two from Alex’s bus heartbreaking rides. The things other children say or do to Alex is just awful. An older boy threatens Alex’s life, with shocking language, just for talking to him. Later, we see people sitting on him, throwing things at him and stabbing him with pencils. Not a thing is done and Alex just protests politely to no avail.
Some film fans may remember the turbulence over the MPAA rating Bully would receive. At first, it was given an R rating, due to language. Since the film was made to educate a middle school audience, the creators edited out the high profanity scenes and the film eventually got a PG-13 rating, so that children would be admitted to it. I don’t like the idea of a cop out that just softens the blow of reality, but admire that the main message would more easily get to its intended audience.
The scene that struck me the most is when Alex’s principal talks briefly with two boys she witnessed some bullying between. At first it’s not evident who was bullying who, and perhaps the principal didn’t know either, so she simply asks them to shake hands. The bully gladly complies, probably glad to face no real punishment. The victim resists, knowing that more should be done. Once the principal dismisses the bully, the frustrated victim explains the situation more; he tries to avoid his bully, and the bully has been told to stay away from him, but it’s not working. The boy is clearly angry and helpless, yet his principal relies on her quick hallway confrontations with no punishment. The whole scene hurt for me to watch, I have seen the same thing in my own schools as a kid.
While Bully isn’t technically a great film (it seemed easy to lose track of our far flung characters, and their climactic moment coming together didn’t bring much impact), it carries strong stories and an important message that needs to spread. Bullying may seem like a childish issue, but the systematic mental abuse is claiming the young lives of good kids. Parents don’t know 100% what it happening at their child’s school, or at what end of the spectrum their children may lie. I would strongly suggest that all teachers, parents and children over the age of 12 see this film. Currently, it’s available on Netflix Instant. There is some strong language, but not much. It’s nothing compared to what most middle schoolers hear in their hallways.
“I’ve never had real friends that would stick around and help me.”