DVD Release Date: February 12, 2013
Theatrical Release Date: March 30, 2012  (NY/LA); wider throughout the spring
Rating: Unrated (for strong language, abusive profanity, a teenage lesbian relationship, themes of abuse/self-abuse/suicide)
Genre: Documentary
Run Time: 95 min.
Director: Lee Hirsch
Cast: Real-life victims of bullying, as well as perpetrators

EDITOR'S NOTE: Originally released as "unrated," on April 5, 2012 The Weinstein Co. announced it had reached an agreement with the Motion Picture Assocation of America (MPAA) to edit Bully for a PG-13 rating. The film will release with its new rating when it opens wider during the weekend of April 13, 2012.

“They push me so far that I . . . (pause) . . . I wanna become the bully.”

That provocative (and potentially threatening) statement comes from a young teenager. By that single quote, one may easily jump to a clichéd conclusion: he’s likely prone to violence, listens to Goth rock, has uninvolved parents, and probably spends every free hour playing gory first-person shooter video games. Yet nothing could be further from the truth.

Alex is a 12-year-old student from Sioux City, Iowa. Sweet-natured. A good kid. But due to premature birth and unflattering genetics, he’s a meek and lanky loner who’s made fun of simply because of his looks. That he’s skinny and awkward makes it that much easier for peers to pick on him. He has no friends, and even his sister is picked on simply for being his sister.

Yet even as his internal coping mechanism leads Alex to believe the lies he tells to himself and his parents—“aw, they’re just messin’ with me”—one candid emotional moment reveals the true deep-seated bitterness that comes from being a lifelong victim of bullying.

Bully is the new documentary from filmmaker Lee Hirsch, a sobering and appropriately disturbing film that is also an important one, both for its message and timeliness. As social networking has grown to full cultural saturation over the past five years, so too has the pandemic of bullying. Yes, it’s a blight as old as adolescence, but it has escalated exponentially in this new century. 

Not that social networking is the culprit or even the primary realm of mistreatment (Facebook and Twitter are only referenced here, and can be agents of good as much as evil). Rather, new avenues of expression have helped cultivate a much more open and aggressive culture of bullying in the broader perspective, one that is still primarily perpetrated face-to-face, in schoolyards, hallways, and even in classrooms.

Hirsch’s film is not a comprehensive dissertation; it’s powerful anecdotal journalism that puts us in the shoes and worlds of five different victims of bullying. And it’s absolutely infuriating—to Hirsch’s credit.

The reason any problem persists is because not enough people are doing something about it. Sure, much talk and even action has been taken on behalf of the bullied; some effectively, and all well-intentioned. So why does a film like this still ring so resoundingly relevant? Because all of our talk and action ultimately hasn’t amounted to much; only in pockets or for short seasons. We’ve given high-minded lip service to a problem that needs concrete authority, and collectively speaking that authority has been far too intellectual yet far from helpful, let alone successful.

Even as the film focuses on the kids, the real message here is that adult authority remains hollow. Not that there aren’t caring and pro-active adults, there are, but there’s not enough of them. As disturbing as it is to hear specific violent threats one teenager uses to strike fear into another (and trust me, we hear some truly vile and sick threats here), it’s equally unsettling to watch as an Assistant Principal thinks she’s solving a problem between teenagers via methods used on toddlers. 

Other school officials come off toothless and clueless as well. Making kids shake hands doesn’t cause conflict to go away, nor does believing a bully is truly sorry simply because he says so. This is Middle School, for crying out loud, not Pre-K. Some parents come off equally cold and inept, too, though others’ valiant efforts are to be applauded in the face of such a daunting challenge.

Kids are bullying kids, and responsibility should be placed directly and accordingly. Yet while many adults are rallying to the cause (and we see some of that leadership here), far too many more—whether by over-intellectualized inactivity, moral timidity, or inexplicable apathy—are absolutely failing our kids, both in dealing with bullies as well as protecting and practically empowering their victims. Bully is, whether intentional or not, an indictment on adult society more than it is on cruel teenagers. It should make you second-guess who the title is actually referring to.

A ratings controversy has surrounded Bully’s pre-release, with the MPAA giving it an R-rating. This led distributor The Weinstein Company to wage a campaign—which it ultimately lost—to have it reduced to a PG-13. It’s a rare instance where both sides can be understood. The abusive language, profanity, themes and context of some of the abuse warrants an “R” by traditional standards, yet that rating would keep it from a teenage audience that needs to see it (though it should be stressed that it’s as vital for adults, perhaps even more so).

The MPAA’s final “R” decision has led The Weinstein Company to release it unrated (as opposed to editing it for content, which would effectively gut it of its truth). What’s perhaps the most telling aspect of this whole ratings debate is that while the MPAA was rightly concerned about offering parents a proper warning of what kind of movie their kids would be walking into on a given night, the movie itself is telling parents that this is the kind of school your kids may be walking into every single day.

Granted, this review isn’t so much a reaction to a movie as it is to a problem, but then that speaks to how well Hirsch’s documentary articulates that problem, both emotionally and morally. Bully shows us unequivocally that this crisis is not just real but endemic, and getting out of our control. For as horrifying as some bullies are, perhaps there is none more brutal than the societal aggregate of Institutionalized Passivity. We should be ashamed by how many lives it’s needlessly cost.

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol Content: None.
  • Language/Profanity: While not pervasive, profanity by teenagers is heard throughout the film at times, often in an abusive context. Not only are the F-word, S-word, A-word, and B-word used on multiple occasions, but so are crude and degrading genital epithets used to demean and belittle, as are offensive sexual orientation terms.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity: No sexual activity or nudity. One story follows a bullied teenage lesbian. She is seen with her girlfriend, in one moment, holding each other.
  • Violence/Other: Some violence is caught on-camera (hitting, punching, pushing around, stabbing with pencils). Much more violence and abuse is talked about and referenced. Some specific violent threats—involving graphic descriptions by what one teenager threatens to do to another—are picked up by the film crew.