Sean K. Cureton

Review of the Week: Bully (2011)

In Movies on VOD: Reviews and Recommendations on May 17, 2013 at 11:10 am

Theatrical Poster

Bully (2011)
Directed by Lee Hirsch
Netflix Rating: Didn’t Like It

Bully is a documentary directed by Lee Hirsch meant to raise awareness about the state of bullied children in American schools. While trying to get the film released to a wide audience, Hirsch encountered significant difficulties in acquiring a PG-13 rating, leading to an allegiance with Harvey Weinstein who decided to release the film unrated in protest of the MPAA’s decision to give the film an R rating. Ultimately, Hirsch had hoped that his film would reach a wide audience, including young students in middle and high schools, in order to instigate a much larger change in how American school administrators address the problem of bullying in their schools. All of this is fine, and a more than worthy task for any documentary filmmaker hoping to expose an ugly truth hidden in plain sight. It’s just too bad that Hirsch’s film lacks any true solution to the problem he exposes so masterfully; instead of being a pointed criticism and address of how to solve the bullying problem, Bully becomes unbearable to watch due to the graphic nature of its content as well as a lack of catharsis in the film’s narrative.

Over the course of Hirsch’s film, Hirsch follows the lives of five specific bullied children. Of those five, two are dead, one is the poster child of all bullied children (glasses and an odd physical appearance), one is a lesbian living in a backwoods, Bible thumping town, and the other is a young African American girl who has been put in a juvenile detention center after lashing out against her aggressors with a gun. While the viewer is obviously meant to feel sympathy and pain for the troubles inflicted on these young kids, there is also the distinct sense that their case can’t and won’t be helped, even by Hirsch’s film. For the three children examined who are alive, their cases can only be solved by leaving their hometowns in search of an new school or town that is more accepting of their personalities. Indeed, the young lesbian, named Kelby Johnson, decides with her family by the film’s end to move somewhere else, and by doing so is the only subject in Hirsch’s film granted any hope of a solution to her problem. In leaving the confines of Hirsch’s documented environments of ignorant oppression and inescapable torment, Kelby offers the only viable option, as far as the fabric of the film is concerned, of ending the bullying she has been the victim of.

Obviously, Hirsch meant for his film to open up doors of escape that were not confined simply to leaving the site of torment. Furthermore, Hirsch shows through the various towns and schools that he visits that the state of bullying in the US is the same everywhere (or at least in the Midwest), with school officials smiling through their teeth at harried parents of bullied children, remaining determined to not do a thing about the problem beyond “talking” to a few of the troubled children. Even after the deaths of the two dead subjects in Hirsch’s film, the stagnancy of public discussion facilitated by school boards continues, as well as a grassroots campaign which, while nice in theory, rarely accomplishes anything beyond raising a few heads within one close knit group of like minded individuals. Hirsch’s documentation of such efforts is ultimately as futile and redundant as the amount of times that such efforts have been attempted before he and his film crew arrived at his chosen sites of torment.

It’s obvious that Hirsch was trying to examine a very real problem in American schools, and the finished film shows a deep and informed understanding of the various facets of said problem. Unfortunately, Hirsch, like many of the parents interviewed over the course of the film, doesn’t have any answers or solutions for his subjects or his audience; he’s just angry and wants the viewer to know why. Bully might be as truthful a documentary as you can find, but the fact that it never leaves its position of self-righteous indignation and wallowing self pity poses a problem in terms of creating a fully realized film, with a beginning, middle, and end. Hirsch’s film remains an admirable effort at trying to combat bullying in American schools, but falls flat in terms of execution and an identifiable and coherent conclusion.

Bully is available on Netflix Instant View, and is my Movies on Netflix: Review of the Week

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