Little terrors – Bully review (Sydney Film Festival)

Bully - Directed by Lee Hirsch. By Simon Miraudo.

Bully plays the Sydney Film Festival on June 12, 2012. It opens in Australian cinemas August 23.

Much ink has been spilled over Lee Hirsch‘s documentary Bully, which is peculiar because the film never presents us with any revelations that elicit anything beyond: “Well, duh.” It doesn’t take a genius to see the fingerprints of distributor Harvey Weinstein smudged around the picture’s media push; in which he and several notable celebrities called out the American classification board for rating it R, making it nearly impossible for school students to witness a movie entirely concerned with their struggles. The R-rating is indeed ridiculous, and it was wise of The Weinstein Company to re-release a PG-13 cut in the United States with a few curse words excised. And perhaps it’s a good thing that more people will become aware of its sympathetic stars and their cause; the more hearts turned the better. But that doesn’t mean Bully - as a work of art, or propaganda – is deserving of the attention.

It features three tormented teens in middle America, as well as the families of two kids who took their own life as a result of incessant harassment. Friendless Alex has become so numbed to the abuse regularly doled out on his bus that he’s not sure he can feel anything anymore; young lesbian Kelby discovers coming out to an ultra-Christian community has its pitfalls; and the incarcerated Ja’Maya is facing decades in prison after bringing a gun to school as a means of silencing her oppressors. Their parents complain to the principals, though the only teacher Hirsch shows us is oblivious to the playground terrorism, and her methods of mediation are laughably ineffective.

The bullies themselves are almost entirely faceless; a collective blob of anger and hatred. The rare few we get to glimpse beating up Alex are painted as motiveless villains and unrepentant jerks. Surely that’s irresponsible filmmaking; to make such a multi-faceted issue seem so black-and-white? Yes, bullying is a terrible virus in all educational systems, and it’s the director’s prerogative to make a one-sided call to arms. Some of the best documentaries are those that eschew telling both sides of the story and instead stick to a single thesis. However, if Bully was truly meant to inspire activism, it would offer some solutions. There is no insight here into the bullies’ home lives; no interviews with teachers exasperated by the difficulty of handling their students. According to Hirsch, bullies are animals and teachers can’t do anything to stop them. So why are we watching this? To revel in the suffering of these poor souls?

It’s not as if Hirsch is simply stepping back to observe events without altering them. In one instance, he surrenders footage to Alex’s parents to highlight what the boy endures every day (and also, to move the plot along). Hirsch and writer Cynthia Lowen could have benefited greatly from being a little more removed from its subjects; if the camera had seemed more like a fly on the wall, and not so intrusive. That being said, it would take a heart of stone not to feel for the children of Bully. It got fairly dusty fairly often for this critic, despite my misgivings about the picture’s craftsmanship.

Dave Cullen’s magnificent book Columbine is an exhaustive account of the events leading up to Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris’ fatal assault on that Colorado school in 1999. Original reports suggested the shooters had been bullied prior to the attack, but that myth was quickly quashed. The reason I mention it, however, is because even Cullen was able to find empathy for the deeply depressed Dylan, whilst navigating the complicated politics between students, teachers, and parents in this small American community. The image presented in that text is of a fractured town, before and after the event that would forever be referred to as simply ‘Columbine’. It’s a troubling portrait of teenage angst, mental illness, human cruelty, religion, jealousy, violence, and most significantly, miscommunication. Bully offers no shades of grey. One of these two is more effective than the other in enlightening us to the issues inherent in high schools the world over.

2.5/5

Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

Bully plays the Sydney Film Festival on June 12, 2012. It opens in Australian cinemas August 23.

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