★★★★ / ★★★★
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.
That’s What I Am (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
Andrew Nichol (Chase Ellison) was paired up by his English teacher, Mr. Simon (Ed Harris), with Stanley (Alexander Walters) to work on a final project. Andrew was embarrassed to work with Stanley because the latter was a social outcast. Stanley was known as Big G, G for ginger, due to his red hair, massive ears, and he stood at least a foot taller than everyone else. Andrew, like most middle school students, just wanted to get by and being paired up with a Frankenstein-like geek garnered a lot of negative attention. Mr. Simon wanted to teach Andrew that passively watching another get bullied didn’t free someone from taking responsibility. Written and directed by Michael Pavone, I wanted to like “That’s What I Am” for its intention but it wasn’t as strong as it could have been because there were plenty of instances when it lost its vision. Andy’s quest to finally go steady with Mary Clear (Mia Rose Frampton), a girl who had kissed every boy in their grade except for Andy, could have been somewhat cute in another movie but bullying is such a serious issue that the two forces didn’t belong in one project without the other feeling like a strange appendage that was better hacked off. The picture also gave us other scenes with elements of bullying like a boy (Camille E. Bourgeois III) inflicting deep cuts on a girl (Sarah Celano) using a metallic zipper on his jacket because he wanted to give her back her “cooties.” (They bumped into each other earlier that day.) If Pavone’s intention was to provide comic relief from intense moments in a form of puppy love, the work felt leaned toward mere silliness. Instead of continually highlighting the consequences of bullying, more relevant than ever with the rate of youth suicides nowadays, the issue was somewhat marginalized. I wasn’t sure how to feel about the writer-director feeling the need to introduce homophobia in the 1960s. Rumors went around the school that Mr. Simon was a homosexual. Since he wouldn’t deny it because he believed that one’s ability to teach should matter more than one’s private life, a boy’s parents’ threatened to create a controversy. On one hand, homophobia and bullying had prejudice and intolerance in common. It inspired the kids to ask questions about what homosexuality meant and some of them, like Andrew, learned how to be a little kinder. On the other hand, the issue of whether or not Mr. Simon was gay overshadowed the issue of bullying. I wondered why the school officials failed to take action if someone being robbed of their lunch or getting punched in the stomach happened every day. Surely it wasn’t just because it was the 1960s. Being bullied is not a rite of passage as a lot of people, to my surprise, tend to argue. The film was designed for children and I was surprised that it didn’t offer solutions that made sense. Kicking bullies in crotch may keep them at bay for about a day but they’re bound to retaliate with more hatred than ever. “That’s What I Am” was a missed opportunity. I can overlook the weak acting by some of the young supporting actors, but what I cannot overlook is when a serious topic is not given the attention it deserves.
Karate Kid, The (1984)
★★★ / ★★★★
Daniel Larusso (Ralph Macchio) was uprooted from New Jersey because his mother (Randee Heller) was hired by an up-and-coming company in California. When he started to have a crush on rich girl, Ali (Elisabeth Shue), who lived in a rich neighborhood, he found himself bullied by Ali’s ex-boyfriend, Johnny (William Zabka), and his meathead friends. We just knew they were a bunch of kids that were up to no good because they were only in high school yet they rode bikes–not the kid-friendly type but the kind with a motor and goes “Vroom!” Written by Robert Mark Kamen and directed by John G. Avildsen, “The Karate Kid” was deliciously 80’s. Everything about it screamed Southern California summer: The beach, the blondes, the soundtrack, and even the (outdated) slangs. It wasn’t difficult to root for Daniel because he was so scrawny and nice. Daniel being bullied by Johnny, who desperately needed anger management classes, was like watching an adorable puppy get thrown around for no reason. The polarized good versus evil worked because its target audience was the younger demographic. It had enough touching moments and it took the issue of bullying seriously. At times, however, the conflict involving the division of class felt forced. We needn’t be constantly reminded in conversations that Daniel was poor. We could see it from where he lived, his clothes, and his determination to prove himself. Although Daniel had a healthy self-esteem, Ali’s snobby friends constantly looked at him like he was dirt. So the new kid in the neighborhood began to feel like he wasn’t good enough for the girl next door. We all know how it feels to feel like we’re not be good enough because we think someone else having more is tantamount to superiority. Daniel initially wanted to learn karate from the enigmatic Mr. Miyagi (Noriyuki “Pat” Morita) because he wanted to fight his tormentors. Over time, in a non-heavy-handed way, Daniel’s motivations evolved. Fighting and winning meant a way for him to alter people’s perceptions and expectations. That was the reason why, I think, the film resonated to its audience. The screenplay was able to successfully tap into our insecurities and convince us that we are in control of our bodies and minds. I admired that the picture wasn’t just about the karate training disguised in household chores like scrubbing the floor and painting the house. It had a lot of surprising humor embedded in those scenes. I loved how Morita kept his constant poker face yet was able to deliver laugh-out-loud one-liners with precision. There was an air of authority about him but he remained lovable. The supporting scenes, such as when Daniel and Ali went on their first date, were cute but never syrupy. Its simplicity made us feel like we were watching a real date, awkwardness and all. “The Karate Kid,” despite its predictable plot, was a joy to watch because it managed to avoid hammering us over the head with the life lessons it had to impart. Most importantly, Daniel maturing just enough over one summer felt believable.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen) had recently lost his mother from cancer. Due to his father’s work (Ulrich Thomsen), he was forced to change schools and live in another country. On his first day, he noticed buck-toothed Elias (Markus Rygaard), nicknamed Rat Face, being bullied by other kids. Christian was naturally drawn to Elias because the two shared a commonality: loneliness. Christian was still mourning his mother and Elias’ inability to express his sadness due to his parents’ (Mikael Persbrandt, Trine Dyrholm) recent separation. Based on the screenplay by Anders Thomas Jensen, “Hævnen” had something important to say about violence and its role in our lives. It started as a story of bullying. I immediately identified with the two boys when they felt they had to strike back so they wouldn’t be harmed anymore. In a way, I agreed with their course of action. I felt anger for the duo when the adults suggested that the best solution was to sweep the problem under the rug and just walk away. It was as if they had forgotten how cruel certain kids could be like. In my experience, bullies don’t simply allow their victims to walk away because they find satisfaction in scaring or hurting someone. It makes them feel like they’re in control. To let go of that control is like forcing to break a habit. And we all know how difficult it is to break what we’re accustomed to. But the film challenged my stance somewhere in between. Instead of focusing on the schoolyard, it brought up questions concerning violence and its consequences out there in the world whether it be a small altercation between adults or something as important as two groups of people out to hurt and kill each other because they differ in religion. It was more difficult to classify where I stood. All the performances were equally fascinating. Persbrandt was wonderful as a father who strived to be a good example for his children. He took a potentially weak character, considering he was the least violent of them all, into someone who knew what it meant to be a father and a man. Nielsen and Rygaard complemented each other’s acting styles yet they knew how to internalize and let go at the just right moments. Having a great chemistry was crucial because their characters’ friendship was tested in physical, emotional, and psychological levels. By the end, the strength of their friendship felt familiar. It reminded me of what I had outside of the film. “In a Better World,” elegantly directed by Susanne Bier, brought up complex questions but it offered no solution, just possibilities. It didn’t need to because each circumstance was uniquely shaped. Despite the sadness that plagued the characters’ lives, I choose to see it as an uplifting story. One can infer that we have the capacity to control our inner turmoils. If we don’t have that ability now, no matter, we can learn by checking in with ourselves once in a while. It then becomes our responsibility to pass that on to future generations.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Erik Ponti (Andreas Wilson) was expelled from school because of the brutal violence he inflicted upon some of his classmates. School officials didn’t know that Erik was physically abused by his step-father (Johan Rabaeus) at home and Erik’s actions were classic signs of transference. Erik’s mother (Marie Richardson), fully aware of the abuse, decided to send her son to a prestigious boarding school to get her child away from her husband and so that her son could have a chance of a promising future. Unbeknownst to her, she sent Erik to another version of hell where the older students, led by Otto Silverheim (Gustaf Skarsgård), bullied the younger ones for the sake of senseless tradition. Based on the autobiographical novel by Jan Guillou and directed by Mikael Håfström, what I loved about the film was it offered a rich insight about the criteria of evil and that, most of the time, it was hard to discern an evil action from an evil person. Evil actions were all around. Aside from Erik’s physically and emotionally abusive home, there was bullying outside of the classrooms, fellow classmates instigated unnecessary fights for the sake of vapid entertainment, the school officials actively neglected the seniors’ cruel pranks, even the kitchen staff decided to turn a blind eye to the flinch-inducing violence because they were afraid to lose their jobs. Sometimes allowing bad things happen could be considered evil, too. There was no doubt, at least in my mind, that it was the adults’ responsibility, whether an adult was a revered headmaster or a lowly cook, to take immediate action when students were being harmed. In a myriad ways, the violence in the school could be considered as a hyperbole. Nevertheless, it is all the more relevant today. With all the senseless bullying in schools all over the country (and I’m sure in other parts of the world as well) and the bullied committing suicide because they thought their lives weren’t going to get better or that no one was willing to listen and take an active role against their plight, it’s sad, even maddening. Håfström’s film was successful because it had a defined central theme and equally engaging and challenging characters. The picture was designed to make us angry, to question our own inaction when we see injustice around us, and to convince us that we have the power to make changes if we choose to. It wasn’t just about the violence. It was also about the friendship that grew between Erik and his intellectual roommate (Henrik Lundström). Through their interactions did we really get to learn who they were, what they wanted to be, and what they meant to each other. Their interactions were surprisingly moving and served as a great contrast against the darkness happening within the school and the individuals who controlled the system. “Ondskan” contained wonderful performances. Wilson had to carry much of the film and he found a balance between being ruthlessly tough and struggling to do the right thing. At the end of the day, he’s the kind of guy I would want by my side.
Karate Kid, The (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
A mother (Taraji P. Henson) and her son Dre (Jaden Smith) moved to China for better opportunities. On their first day in China, Dre developed a crush on a girl (Wenwen Han) with a talent for music but a bully (Zhenwei Wang) just as quickly interrupted their conversation. It turned out the bully was not just someone Dre needed to watch out for around his apartment complex because they both attended the same school. The fact that the bully knew kung fu did not help Dre’s confidence. The film was without a doubt commercial and at times cliché, but I could not help but enjoy it. There were three elements I loved about it. First, the maintenance man (Jackie Chan) did not teach Dre kung fu until about an hour and fifteen minutes into the story. I thought it was a big risk because the film had the challenge of keeping the audiences interested. It was a smart decision because it successfully established why Dre was someone worth rooting for. For instance, although Dre was bullied, he was not afraid to fight back. Unfortunately, he did not have the technical skills to stand up against other boys who knew martial arts. I found it very easy to relate with Dre moving to a different country and having trouble fitting in. When I moved to America when I was twelve, to say that the transition was difficult is an understatement because I didn’t know the language well and I wasn’t fully equipped to adapt a new culture. So when Dre finally confronted his mom about how much he hated being in China, that scene had a special meaning to me. Second, Henson was pure joy to watch. I’ve mostly seen her in Tyler Perry’s movies so I knew that she was very capable of delivering angst and sadness. I was surprised that she could actually be funny. Every time she was on screen, I couldn’t help but smile because she injected a certain enthusiasm in her character, that everything in China was great, and she was ready to be strong for her son when the occassion called for it. Her facial expressions were priceless. Lastly, the scenes in the tournament made me feel like I was there. The build-up regarding Dre’s hardwork, the bullying, and honor at stake finally came to fruition. Even though Dre’s mentor consoled him that winning or losing did not matter as long as he earned the audience’s respect, I thought Dre had to win no matter what. I was so invested in what was happening, I couldn’t help but vocalize my thoughts. “The Karate Kid,” directed by Harald Zwart, worked as an interpretation rather than a remake. It did not have anything to do with karate (the filmmakers should have just named it “The Kung Fu Kid” to silence the haters–a simple solution) but I was entertained for over two hours.
My Soul to Take (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Abel (Raúl Esparza) suffered from dissociative identity disorder (DID). On the night seven children were born, he learned that one of his personalities was the serial killer that prowled the streets of Riverton. This caused a break in his mind and it allowed the personality to take over and kill his family. Luckily, the police (Frank Grillo, Danai Gurira) arrived just in time before he had a chance to murder his three-year-old daughter. Before his death, he promised that he would return and claim the children who were born the night he died. Exactly sixteen years later, the seven teens, collectively known as the Riverton Seven (Max Thieriot, John Magaro, Denzel Whitaker, Zena Grey, Nick Lashaway, Paulina Olszynski, and Jeremy Chu), started to die in the hands of a murderer. There were three people worthy of suspicion: Bug (Thieriot) who seemed to be experiencing a psychotic break similar to what happened to Abel on the night he died, Abel’s daughter nicknamed Fang (Emily Meade) who ruled the high school, and the physical manifestation of Abel himself. Written and directed by Wes Craven, “My Soul to Take” was a post-modern horror hybrid of slasher flick and ghost story. In general, I enjoyed it because Craven had an interesting take on the genre. However, the more I pondered about the film, the more I felt disappointed because it failed to explore several important components in order for us to feel like we were actually in the increasingly paranoid Riverton. Craven managed to accomplish this difficult feat in “Scream” as the Woodsboro murders started to unfold. There was no reason why he couldn’t pull it off here. The film spent too much on time on the teenagers as some of them bullied Bug. Didn’t they have anything better to do like, oh, I don’t know, maybe do their homework or worry about the SATs? As for those who Bug considered to be his friends, they either had some sort of handicap, emotional or physical, or was a religious fanatic. It was amusing, which I’m sure was the point, but it took away considerable amount of time that could have been spent placing us from the detectives’ point of views, the same duo who encountered Abel all those years ago. One believed in science but the other offered another explanation. The latter claimed that in her culture, people with multiple personality disorders didn’t have multiple personalities. Rather, they had multiple souls. It was a fascinating perspective and we could surmise that maybe Abel’s “souls” were transfered to the newborns after his death. After all, in some documented form of DIDs, the personalities were at war. The film had many ideas and there were a handful of implications if one were to look closely. But the closer I looked, the more I was convinced that the story and script lacked focus. Instead of working synergistically, they seemed to derail each other. One glaring mistake was the confusion between DID and schizophrenia. One can blame it on nothing else but ignorance.
Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Dawn (Heather Matarazzo) was a twelve-year-old in junior high school who everybody made fun of. People labeled her with names like “Weinerdog” or “lesbian” but she had no choice but to simply glare through her spectacles. Even the bullied bullied her which made her situation that much sadder and much more relatable. Her family was not very nice to her nor did they make an effort to. She only felt safe either by herself, in her clubhouse, or when she pined over an older boy (Eric Mabius) in her brother’s band. But since this film was written and directed by Todd Solondz, it was far from sugary and not everyone learned a valuable lesson in the end. In fact, some of the characters ended up worse than when the movie started. I particularly despised Dawn’s mother because she was unashamed about favoring one child over another. The film was more concerned about delivering the dark humor when the lead character was faced with desperate situations, such as when one of the boys in her class (Brendan Sexton III) threatened her with rape. I thought Matarazzo was perfectly cast as the geek because she looked very vulnerable but at the same time she had knowing in her eyes–which made her borderline creepy, like the kind of person who was capable of sneaking up in our room in the middle of the night and stabbing us in our sleep. The movie’s X Factor that made it better than most movies about bullying was its balance between delivering the laugh-out-loud one-liners and embracing the pain of being made fun of just because one is different. I think the chocolate cake scene during a family dinner was a prime example of how daring and bold the picture was willing to be. It reminded me of Michael Lehmann’s “Heathers” but was set in middle school although certainly not as depraved. In the end, the movie made me think of my middle school years and I was thankful that I did not go through the humiliating things that Dawn went through. I would have been scarred for life. And for those couple of people I knew that did go through those painful things, in high school, they ended up dealing with having low self-esteem and despite the fact that they were smart, they failed to shine. “Welcome to the Dollhouse” was an undoubtedly fearless independent film. It was unafraid to show how sadistic and desperate some of the characters were but they were far from one-dimensional. We can all relate when it comes to defining happiness in terms of our place within our peers. Some of us grow out of it but others remain stuck in that phase and they fail realize that as long as they stay in it, happiness remains far from their reach.
Let Me In (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
A man with a badly burned face had been taken to a hospital and a detective (Elias Koteas) arrived to interview him. But when the detective stepped out of the room to talk on the telephone, the person of interest jumped from a ten-story building. Cut to a lonely kid Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who was constantly bullied in school. He spent most of his time by himself as he tried to cope with his parents’ divorce. So when a girl named Abby (Chloe Moretz) and her guardian (Richard Jenkins) moved into the apartment building, naturally, Owen wanted to be friends with her unknowing of the fact that she was a vampire. “Let Me In,” directed by Matt Reeves, is very similar to Tomas Alfredson’s “Låt den rätte komma in” or “Let the Right One In.” While I did enjoy this film’s interpretation of the events, I constantly felt the need to compare it to the original. I found it difficult to separate the two because Reeves’ version did not really strive to do anything too different. From the cold locale to the grizzly murder scenes, it was just good instead of impressive because I’ve seen it all before. What I liked most about “Let Me In” was the actors. I immediately felt Smit-McPhee’s loneliness and desperation to connect with others. The scene when he called his dad to ask if evil truly existed was very sad and I just wanted to give him a hug. Moretz as the twelve-year-old vampire was accessible. I also felt her loneliness because she knew what she was and her capabilities but nobody understood her. For those who tried, such as Jenkins’ sympathetic character, they ended up getting hurt or dead. I’m giving “Let Me In” a recommendation because if I had not seen the original, I would have still enjoyed this vampire film. Its heart was always the focus instead of the blood. I always appreciate that quality especially with horror pictures because it is so much easier to deliver the violence instead of trying to explore what makes the characters tick. Further, the somber mood complemented the haunting score and vice-versa. What I felt “Let Me In” could have done was to explore Abby’s past much further. When Owen finally had a chance to enter Abby’s apartment, we saw pictures and other paraphernalia involving Abby’s mysterious past. Remaking a movie does not necessarily mean the remake should be confined to the original’s ideas. In order for the remake to be stronger, it must not be afraid to think outside the box (or even break the box) to surprise us.