Let’s all agree up-front: Nobody likes a bully, and that’s the easiest connection with the new buzzed-about documentary, “Bully,” out today in New York and Los Angeles. I wasn’t happy when Bobby Dreyfus told me I was flat-chested in the seventh grade when I was walking the halls between algebra and Spanish, and I didn’t believe adults who told me it was his way of saying he liked me. It’s still embarrassing to admit, and there wasn’t any violence attached. Oh, and Bobby, I have boobs now. Hah! Most of us have been on the receiving end of some level of bullying, and if we are still alive to talk about it when we have our own adolescent children, then we’re not like the unfortunate extreme cases, also chronicled in the movie, in which children have taken their own lives rather than get on the bus one more time.
It’s easy to identify with the individual subjects, such as Tyler who hanged himself in his bedroom closet, the awkward Alex who is so starved for friendship he tolerates daily physical abuse on a bus in Middle America and who’s being poked with pencils and called names. It’s no surprise, given his age and geekiness that he doesn’t have the emotional wherewithal to fight back, or put into words his feelings of inadequacy when (and if) he discusses the outbreaks with his parents, teachers, school officials, and police officers. The movie also follows an Oklahoma out-lesbian teen who tries to take a stand at her high school, a 14-year-old who took her mother’s gun and brandished it at her tormenters on the morning bus, and an 11-year-old farmer’s son whose bereft father becomes an antibullying activist.
“Bully,” the anecdotal new documentary from the Weinstein Company, has been in the news because the MPAA recently rated this teaching tool “R,” due to swearing. In response, the Weinstein Company, having received a certain amount of publicity from the ridiculous rating, is going out with the film unrated. It’s nowhere near as obscene as any random episode of “South Park.” In fact, it seems to me, and I’m not a filmmaker, that a teeny amount of bleeping could easily have changed the rating of this movie to PG, although the producers claim that sharing the hurtful words of bullying is crucial to the message.
“We wanted to depict honestly what bullying sounds like, how pervasive it is and this language — those six uses of the F word, which is why this film has an R rating — that’s part of bullying,” producer Cynthia Lowen told the Hollywood Reporter. “And so for us not to have it in a film about bullying is to participate in the myth that it’s not that bad, it’s not that pervasive, to say that kids aren’t hearing this every time they get on the bus,” she added. “But they are, so we don’t want to look the other way.”
Then why look away when it comes to the hard questions that need to be asked. We all agree — except those tormenting these victims and justifying their daily actions — that bullying is bad. The major failing of this movie, beyond a stubborn refusal to turn itself into a PG teaching tool that would be more accessible to schools across the country, is that it doesn’t delve into why kids bully, why school administration officials let themselves off the hook saying “kids will be kids” or that they will take care of the problem, and try to solve it with well-reasoned discourse and limp handshakes. Why do the responsible parties consistently fail to assume responsibility or be held accountable? Is this really that new, and that universal, that new programs — even legislation — are required to address it?
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At the end, we see parents and surviving students banding together, and literally wearing wristbands, releasing balloons in honor of those who have taken their lives, and calling for people to just get along, one act of kindness and support at a time. Am I alone in thinking that’s kind of feeble? Like many recent activist documentaries, the end credits include a link to a website for a movement, in this case www.thebullyproject.com.
There are tough questions that need to be addressed: Why do schools no longer have control over children’s safety on school buses? The driver has to drive, but someone has to maintain order and ensure that kids sit in their seats and don’t prey on one another. Someone has to step up and take responsibility, when predatory behavior against other children is happening in plain sight, and not leave it to children to police themselves.
We all agree that corporal punishment has no place in schools. But what has replaced it? Why do the schools in the movie seem to have no control over the students who steal one boy’s clothes in the gym while he is in the shower (boys will be boys), call one another names, and hit other kids in the head while no one is looking? The teachers and counselors are failing to protect the kids on their watch, and we may just have to go back to a certain level of strict behavior enforcement. Or at least address that issue, or other solutions to the endemic problems of bullying on and off campus, a problem that has become even more baroque once you add sexting, texting, and cyberbullying.
It may make us feel bad, and by extension better, to watch “Bully” and click on a website, but what are the roots of the problem, and what are the viable solutions? Certainly an unrated film once deemed R-rated will have a tough time getting the school exposure that it needs. And it’s possible that, by hooking the movie on the extreme case, the rare suicide, we fail to address the more commonplace evil that lurks just around every school hallway and behind every locker. And, beyond that, hovers in the boardroom and beside the water cooler.