MOVIE REVIEW | “Bully” is an enormously moving call to action

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After finding me one day after school in seventh grade screaming and beating my bedroom floor with my fists, my parents made an appointment with my homeroom teacher and the school principal, to inform them that I was transferring schools to get away from the unceasing bullying I’d been enduring. I don’t remember the principal’s and the teacher’s exact words, but I remember the general sentiment: “This won’t solve your problem, Jason. The only way for you to stop the bullying is to fight back—or just stop being so weird!” 

We see that feeling in the eyes, and hear it in the words, of the parents of one young victim featured in the new documentary Bully: you have to stand up for yourself, the boy’s father tells him. The boy just looks at his dad blankly: it’s clear that the boy is never going to fight back. Either someone has to intervene and protect him, or the bullying will continue to make his life miserable indefinitely.

Another boy in the film did fight back, and that boy describes the incident not as a triumph but as a desperate final measure: after four years of telling all the adults around him that he was being bullied, and after four years of adult inaction, this boy finally had to hit back. Sure enough, the bullies stopped their harassment, and the story might seem to validate the adults’ toughen-em-up philosophy—but in the movie, the boy who fought back is speaking at a town hall meeting held after the death of his friend, who was also being bullied and who never hit back, saying that he wasn’t going to stoop to the bullies’ level. Instead of “toughening up,” the boy’s friend hanged himself. Even the sucide didn’t put an end to the bullying; kids showed up at school the following day with ropes strung around their necks in mockery.

From the standpoint of craft Bully is not an exceptionally great piece of documentary filmmaking—it’s merely adequate—but its arrival could not be better-timed. The documentary arrives at the crest of a turning tide in the American conversation about bullying. Until now, bullying has largely been treated as a fact of life: kids will be kids, and bullying is just something that the victims need to learn how to handle for themselves.

The smartest decision director Lee Hirsch makes is to focus not on the bullies but on their victims. There are a couple of painful scenes that depict a boy being bullied, but at the heart of the film are two families whose bullied sons took their own lives. Rather than painting a tale of heroes and villains, or suggesting that there are easy solutions, Hirsch makes a simple moral argument: it’s the responsibility of adults and kids who become aware of bullying to do something—anything—to stop it.

Hirsch and his team worked diligently to capture footage of kids dealing with bullying in schools, but there are no “a-ha” shots here, no moments of stunning revelation. There’s one administrator who acts with insensitivity, but the film doesn’t provide a blueprint for what she should have done instead—it simply demands, implicitly and explicitly, that administrators, parents, and kids take the problem seriously and acknowledge that bullying isn’t something to shrug off or take for granted.

Bully is as moving as any film you’re likely to see this year, its power coming from the filmmakers’ decision to turn the camera on a simple but widely-ignored truth: bullying does terrible, sometimes deadly, harm to millions of children each year. Bullying is not an inevitable fact of life, the film argues: vulnerable children like the ones shown in Bully don’t have to be thrown to the wolves five days a week from ages 5 to 18. School systems that are already overburdened won’t be able to end bullying overnight, but at least they can start—from the top down—to change the conversation, to stop blaming the victims.

Seeing this film will doubtless inspire many to talk about their own experiences of being bullied, a fact that the sometime Internet bully Carles of Hipster Runoff has already made reference to in a tweet: “I have a confession, yall… I was bullied. Hope yall understand me now. <3.” Carles probably was bullied—and so was I, and maybe so were you, and so are millions of kids every day. Bully asks: Are we okay with that? If not, what are we going to do about it?