★★★★ / ★★★★
Lee Hirsch’s documentary puts the spotlight on one of the most psychologically and emotionally scarring yet most consistently ignored problems in American schools: bullying. If seventeen-year-old Tyler Long and eleven-year-old Ty Smalley committed suicide because they could no longer endure the abuse brought on by some of their peers, then there is an obvious problem in the school systems’ approach in terms of what should be done to those who choose to make their classmates’ every day existence an unbearable torment.
Perhaps the most disturbing images that this most revealing documentary offers is of Alex Libby being treated like a punching bag on the school bus. He is strangled by a boy twice his size who sits behind him, pushed off the seats when he tries to get away, receives profanities each time he speaks, and sometimes he is stabbed with a pencil on his arms and head. The bus driver neither says nor does anything. Maybe dealing with kids’ behavior is above her pay grade.
The film is criticized by some from an ethical standpoint for allowing the bullying to escalate as the camera records not once, not twice, but for several days. These criticisms are invalid because if the filmmakers had gone between the kids on that bus, it would have defeated the purpose of documenting. It is obvious that the intention is to pull back the curtains on what goes unseen by adults and that our compassion is always pointed toward the victims.
All of these transgressions are recorded and shown to school officials. Still, there remains only inaction. Even the assistant principal, Kim Lockwood, fails to do anything other than to assure parents with vague statements like something will be done. Maybe Ty Smalley’s father has a point when he says that nothing is done because a lot of the victims are nobodies. But if a politician’s son or daughter were bullied to an extreme, it is likely that a law designed to purge this epidemic would pass tomorrow.
I admired that the film allows us to get a feel for its subjects’ personalities. For example, Alex is called names like “fish face,” having been born only after twenty-six weeks of gestation, at school. Despite his classmates thinking that he is creepy because of the way he looks, we watch him at home and it is to no surprise that he is just like any other kid: capable of kindness, exuding energy and sense of humor. Furthermore, when they are allowed to speak in front of the camera, they express their thoughts beautifully and bring up a lot of interesting questions worth pondering. As adults, it is a shame that we tend to forget that children and adolescents are worth listening to because they lack “real”-life experiences. What is a school milieu but a small representation of the “real” world?
Alex is not the only one who exhibits resilience. High school student Kelby Johnson, who has come out as a lesbian, is treated by her small town as a pariah. Her friends, despite being straight, are considered homosexuals by association. But instead of hating the detractors for thinking and acting the way they do, Kelby is convinced that people are capable of change but only if they are willing. Through interviews with her father, there is an unspoken possibility that perhaps he was not accepting of gays before learning that his child is one herself. We see a man, strong but helpless, who just wants his daughter to feel safe and accepted. Kelby’s story would have been richer if the director had shown the father and daughter interacting. Showing them apart reveals only the surface.
There is an interview in the latter half involving Trey, Ty’s best friend, who admits being a bully in the third grade. Impressed by Ty’s resilience, kindness, and ability to walk away from a confronting situation, Trey was inspired to make amends for his behavior and be friends with those he pushed around in the past. His confession holds an importance because it shows that bullying is a choice.
And then there is Ja’Meya Jackson who felt compelled to fight back for being bullied. She was sent to a juvenile detention center for bringing her mother’s gun to the school bus, pulling it out, and pointing it at those who made her life hell. I cannot defend what she had done, but I empathize with how she must have felt and why she thought it would be a good idea to scare her tormentors. So kids being punched purple and stabbed with sharp objects on the bus get no special attention. But if someone pulls out a gun, everybody turns around. What does that say about us?
“Bully” is not the most in-depth documentary, but it succeeds in that it opens up a very important line of conversation. With so many factors relating to the issue, providing the stage and covering as many as possible is ultimately the correct approach. Still, I wished it had tackled the issue of parenting—or lack thereof—more directly. As someone who has experience working with children and their parents, I can say with certainty that some parents simply do not want to know what is going on with their kids. That is, until they start coming home with blood on their shirts or if there is a significant change in their behavior like not eating, not sleeping, or being less social. That’s a scary reality. It should not matter if work is too busy or if there are family problems happening. Parents should be proactive with what is going on with their children while they are alive not when they are in coffins.