Written by Cynthia Lowen and Lee Hirsch
Directed by Lee Hirsch
**** (four stars)
“Tell me how to fix this.”
Kim Lockwood, a Middle School Assistant Principal in Sioux City, IA, quietly speaks those words to herself as she views one distressed looking student skulking down a hallway during one of the early scenes in Director Lee Hirsch’s bold documentary “Bully.” Truth be told, in my life as a preschool teacher, I have uttered those same words to myself more times than I would have ever thought or wished. And relatively speaking, I have it easy.
Yes, dear readers, even in those very early childhood years, the topic of bullying and therefore, advocacy for those who are most powerless is a constant one. What makes navigating the cruelty children inflict upon each other easier for me to deal with than perhaps other teachers of older students is precisely the fact that I work with two other Co-Teachers. The three of us are able to cast a wide net throughout the classroom and in moments of interpersonal conflicts between children, one of us can deal with the problem and defend the victims of the situation while the other teachers are able to be involved in other classroom areas. All of that being said, it still flabbergasts me to be a first hand witness to those moments when children as young as three and four years old have devised ways to emotionally hurt their peers. Granted, at that age, they are not that aware of the hurt they are causing towards others and most of the time, their behaviors are reactionary more than premeditated. But, somehow, especially for the girls I’ve taught over the years, they somehow just know that a well timed, “You can’t come to my party!!” can devastate a classmate to the point of nearly inconsolable tears. And that is exactly where my colleagues and myself swoop in. Not only are we trying to give children the tools to solve their own problems, we are emphatically defending the child who was wronged, who was hurt, who was excluded, who was blamed and ensuring that their status in our classroom community and their emerging sense of self esteem remains sturdy. Yet, I often wonder just where does this sense of holding power over another, to the point of enacting malice upon your peers, originate from? If I had a magic wand, I would figure out a way to ensure that all children, everywhere, would never feel that sting of cruelty. Of course, I do not possess such an object so, yes...please do tell me how to fix this.
At its core, I think that is one of the major sentiments Hirsch wanted to convey with “Bully,” a character driven documentary piece detailing the lives of several victimized middle school/high school students, two of whom (one aged 17, and the other aged 11) have terribly committed suicide. The film is often harrowing, consistently despairing, and even justifiably blistering in its outrage. But mostly, I found the film to be profoundly sobering as it forces all who watch to just take some time to think about not only how we treat each other but how we can somehow come to the aid and support of others, especially when that person feels as if they are existing at their most alone. “Bully” is indeed one of 2012’s most powerful films but beyond that, I feel it a film that should be required and essential viewing for children, teens, families, educators and school systems. Lee Hirsch has created a film of impassioned, heartfelt empathy and it should not be missed.
“Bully” opens tragically with the story of Tyler Long, a 17 year old who, after years of being bullied and feeling increasingly isolated, hung himself in his parent’s closet. Beginning with a prologue of such intense internal pain and damage to a boy’s life, and the equally damaging effects on the surviving members of his family, went a powerfully long way to giving the film and subject matter the level of serious attention it needs. For those who view bullying as simply being just a part of life because “kids will just be kids” and “boys will be boys,” Lee Hirsch has a decidedly provocative and different take which will hopefully force those people to re-evaluate their worldview.
For the remainder of the film, we are introduced to the aching stories of several children, from Georgia, Texas, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Iowa, as “Bully” shows how no one is immune to bullying, how even the most seemingly well adjusted children can become targets and how the consistent abuse can take a devastating psychological toll. Aside from the stories of Tyler Long and Ty Smalley (the 11 year old who also took his life), we are presented with Ja’Meya, a 14- year-old honor student and star athlete who was relentlessly harassed to the point where she took her Mother’s gun onto a school bus. For the course of the film, we wait, along with her Mother, to hear how the legal system will decide Ja’Meya’s fate.
In a section that truly broke my heart, Hirsch also gives us the story of 14-year-old Kelby, as we can see how an entire community turned its back upon this girl and her family simply because she is a lesbian. While Kelby does possess a strong will, a small, supportive circle of friends and compassionate parents, the level of cruelty she has received from the classroom to throughout her entire town is astonishing and unforgivable. I could not help but to imagine what may have become of her if she did not even have those friends and parents on her side.
The film spends the most time with Alex Libby (pictured above), a 12-year-old who was born prematurely, is physically weaker and more awkward than his peers and carries an unusual facial appearance which has sadly earned him the targeted badge of “Fish Face.” Throughout “Bully,” Alex is often seen alone, is apparently friendless, is mercilessly hazed on the school bus daily and is never defended by anyone. Alex laughs off most of the abuse in the moment but why? Or better yet, how? Perhaps by not having strong friendships, he is unaware of what positive friendships and interpersonal relationship can and should be. Perhaps, this hazing is all he knows and despite how miserable it makes him feel, it is all he has.
A particularly well observed and captured sequence occurs in the kitchen of his home with his sassy younger sister and his Father. Alex’s sister perceptively announces that she will inevitably be bullied herself just because Alex is her brother and everyone thinks of him as “creepy.” Even more telling about that moment to me was the reaction from their Father. It amazed me that their Father was literally right in the middle of them and somehow wasted this opportunity to learn more about Alex’s life and advocate for his son rather than what he did do: make Alex solely responsible for the treatment he receives and any potential outcomes that may occur.
Furthermore, once Hirsch expands his canvas to the teachers, administrators and school system, their collective ineffectiveness and inability to advocate strongly is shocking. We are shown a world where school administrators adhere more to the politics of the school system and local media (and in the case of this film, saving face in front of the filmmaker’s watchful camera eyes) rather than advocating for the powerless.
An early sequence shows Kim Lockwood’s attempts to settle one dispute between two students by forcing the two boys to shake hands. As I am a teacher who refuses to force children to apologize as I feel it is nothing more than a social “Get Out Of Jail Free Card,” this particular scene actually set my blood boiling. This is because we see Lockwood letting the bully off the hook because he simply offered a conciliatory, yet obviously dishonest handshake. This moment was followed by Lockwood beginning to accuse the victim for the bad behavior, even going so far as to suggest that his unwillingness and reluctance to accept the bully’s handshake made his behavior as negative as the bully’s persistent abuse, which has continued even after talks from teachers and the local authorities.
Another agonizing sequence with Lockwood occurs when Alex’s parents meet with her to try and get him moved from one school bus route to another. Lockwood pacifies the parents with innocuous statements of how “kids will be kids” and how she has ridden that particular bus route herself and the children were just “angels.”
One great moment arrives late in the film between Alex and another Assistant Principal as he confronts her about how she indeed did nothing to help him after a child sat on his head during another hellish school bus ride. The Assistant Principal protests and even claims that she did deal with that student and the problem overall and therefore, hasn’t he not had his head sat upon since? While Alex concedes to the truth to that statement, he quietly informs her that sitting upon his head is not the only form of physical abuse he has endured from this tormentor and ultimately, it has never ceased.
And then, there’s the unthinkable moment set during an outreach town hall meeting, organized by Tyler Long’s parents just five weeks after their son’s suicide. As families and teenagers all courageously spoke publicly about the levels of bullying that has permeated their entire community, not even one of the 20 invited members of the town school board appeared to hear any of it.
While Hirsch understandably and wisely condemns the school officials and administrations for their inactivity he also wisely does not demonize them. Within all logistics, and in defense of educators, teachers are not able to be with children during every single moment of the day. In regards to my own classroom, as I previously stated, there are three of us present to preside over 18 charges. The entire preschool at which I am employed may carry a student body of nearly 200 children but our campus size is small enough that we know essentially every child there and they know us as well. But, I already often wonder what will happen as these children leave my classroom and school, head to larger sized kindergarten classes with only one teacher and even beyond, into those years where childhood cruelty becomes premeditated and for some, relentless in its persistence. Teachers do not ride the buses, are not present in the bathrooms, locker rooms or any other student hideaways and are they are certainly not involved during any off campus incidents, especially those that now occur through any social media formats. Teasing and bullying is an unfortunate part of life but there is no conceivable reason to me as to why schools have to become unsafe places.
What Hirsch accomplishes by this point of the film is to display the cycle and ultimately, a culture of teenage fear and abuse, where children feel increasingly isolated and uncommunicative. Hirsch is wise enough to understand that within the culture of teenagers, the fear exists that if one stands up for another, then that action may potentially make the protector a new target for abuse. That said, Hirsch argues passionately that the relationships between students and teachers are completely symbiotic. If Alex, for instance, has tried in the past to obtain help and did not receive sufficient support, then why should he or others like him try again, forcing them all to suffer in silence? For children like Tyler and Ty, the pressure became too much to deal with. Even for Kelby who has, at the very least, been fortunate enough to create her own support circle, she has been let down tremendously and shamefully by the very community that should be protecting her. Hirsch argues, that while kids do need to be able to communicate their needs, we, as adults, have got to take their needs seriously enough and fight for them. Only then will our world community begin to heal and ultimately grow.
The climax of the film centers around events pertaining to Stand For The Silent, an organization created and organized by Ty Smalley’s parents as a means to engender a culture of kindness and tolerance. The main message is that bullying should never be tolerated and through individual acts of kindness, we may all be able to save someone’s life and create a society in which everyone feels valued, loved and protected. Surprisingly, I have seen some criticism of this movement and film in general as being more than a little naïve with this philosophy. But, I am here to tell you that while “Bully” certainly does not provide any easy answers to this seismic problem, it does offer some deceptively simple concepts to truly ponder. If you can see it, then you are in it and it is up to all of us to stand up for each other and do something.
What can we attain from Lee Hirsch’s “Bully” is 100% precisely the topic I return to over and again on Savage Cinema and that is the topic of humanity. To some, “Bully” may seem to be naïve but for me and my sensibilities, I was pleased that Hirsch did not attempt to provide any band-aid answers. Yet, what he does do with this film is to try and create a world of empathy and solidarity, which will then be utilized to hopefully create a more tolerant world in the long run. For that person who looks to be all alone, give them a smile, a handshake, a greeting, something that makes the other person feel that they are indeed individuals of value. That they are people worth knowing. As Alex’s Mother explains tearfully in one scene, she feels that if kids ever gave Alex a chance they would see how deeply loyal of a friend he would actually turn out to be.
Lee Hirsch’s “Bully” is completely in tune with this precarious and tumultuous time of life so intuitively and beautifully that he has created a film that encourages discussion, deep thought and most importantly, action for all of us as bullying does not solely exist in the school yard and school buses. Bullies exist well into deep adulthood through inhumane supervisors and yes, we have seen more than our share of political figures who are nothing more than bullies out to settle old, unfinished scores on a mass level. Yes, there will always be bullies. But more importantly, there should always be advocates and protectors to outnumber the bullies. Everyone, everywhere, especially our children should feel safe, and even more than that, everyone should know unequivocally that their lives have value, importance and purpose.
Dear readers, I am certain that many of you have been bullied, are being bullied or at least know someone who has endured this trial of life. Growing up, I was teased, bullied and hazed throughout my childhood for my race, weight, appearance, speech, worldview, likes, dislikes, and whatever else set me apart from others. While I was fortunate enough to have friends, I deduced that my sense of humor and particular talents could become shields in order to navigate through those teenage years during which I felt completely alone and uncomfortable within my own skin. Yes, I did have ferociously attentive and devoted parents but I never felt that I could ever approach them with anything serious or felt as if I would be understood. I also even had a few moments of explosiveness against tormentors as I just had had more then enough and could not take even one more second of it. Obviously, I did survive and the feelings of my past which I expressed to you are indeed the nature of that age. So, I am no one special. But, as I teach my young charges year after year, I return to that scared, insecure child I was and I wish that with all of my might that I can lift these kids just enough where they will never, ever feel about themselves as I felt about myself. Of course that is too much to ask but if these kids do fall into some sense of despair as they get a little older, why should they or any child, anywhere ever feel as if the act of talking to someone for help is an insurmountable task?
We OWE it to our children to stand up for them, to protect them and guide them for if we don’t, we will undoubtedly have more children like Tyler Long and Ty Smalley on our hands and souls. Don’t they deserve better? Lee Hirsch obviously feels so and with the release of “Bully,” I urge you to see this film and allow the film to return you to that most vulnerable piece of yourself and just think. No child, anywhere in the world should ever feel this isolated and unprotected and it is inexcusable to me that any child, anywhere should become the target of someone else’s torment for nothing more than simply existing.
For if we cannot even advocate for our children, then what does that say about us as adults?
“Bully” is easily one of 2012’s best films.
Much has been written about the rating for “Bully,” which was originally branded with an R for profanity. Now as you all know, the R rating restricts teenagers from seeing the film unless they are 17 years old or accompanied by an adult so the rating made it impossible for the intended audience to even see the film. This was a hugely stupid move on the part of the ratings powers that be as you are honestly going to tell me that teenagers should not see a film because it contains language that they are already using in their real lives?
Well, thankfully and due to the efforts of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, whose company released the film (and a man who has carried the reputation of being quite the bully throughout Hollywood) “Bully” has been downgraded to a rating of PG-13, without having to make any edits. So, parents and teachers who may be considering taking youngsters to the film, aside from hearing the “F Bomb” less than five times, there is NOTHING ELSE in the movie that could be considered controversial for their young eyes and ears.