If you’ve heard anything at all about Lee Hirsch’s documentary Bully, chances are it probably had something to do with the preposterous bit of grandstanding that went on a couple weeks ago between distributor Harvey Weinstein and the MPAA ratings board.
There was a pesky matter of Bully clocking in with three “fucks” too many to qualify for a PG-13 rating. Instead of simply dubbing over the excess profanities to reach a wider audience—a tactic Weinstein himself employed just last year while trying to squeeze an extra couple bucks out of The King’s Speech at the end of its theatrical run—we were instead subjected to weeks of proselytizing, op-ed pieces and online petitions. In his own inimitable carny-barker fashion, Weinstein even sent Bully into theaters without an MPAA rating, only to back off and go with the PG-13 edit after the unrated version tanked in limited release.
Having seen the original un-bleeped Bully, I can assure you that these offending utterances of the word “fuck” are entirely inconsequential, and offered nothing more than a media-friendly foothold for the shameless marketing of an exceedingly poor documentary.
Stunningly devoid of insight, Hirsch’s film follows five disjointed cases of bullied kids with an emphasis on sad music cues and trick camera shots. The picture is anchored by Alex, an awkward 12-year-old from Sioux City, Iowa, who’s been dubbed “Fish Face” by his peers and gets smacked around every morning on the school bus.
It is indeed awful to watch how shitty kids can be to one another, especially at that age. But Hirsch doesn’t dig any deeper than mere surface-level pathos and cheap shots at school administrators. There’s not even any discussion of the cyber-bullying epidemic that’s on every parent’s mind these days. Attackers are faceless, and Alex is granted no identity or agency. He’s just a figure of pity, setting the tone for a movie that might as well have been called Victim.
Ja’Meya was having trouble on the bus, too. So she borrowed her mother’s gun and held everybody on the ride hostage for a little while. This plot line is rigged for us to jeer a prosecutor charging her with 45 felony counts, wallowing in descriptions of how Ja’Meya was teased and encouraging us to root for her release—tellingly never even once considering any of the innocent children traumatized by being held at gunpoint by a classmate!
The most interesting, and predictably underdeveloped thread, follows Kelby, a proudly out teenage lesbian who is embraced by her fundamentalist Christian family—who then find themselves shunned by their church and run out of town. Kelby’s a bright, plucky lass. She and her folks should be an inspiration to us all. Unfortunately, they’re hardly in the picture.
Instead, we spend most of the time with suspiciously edited sequences in which Alex’s school principal acts like an imbecile, and far too many graveside visitations with the families of two boys who allegedly committed suicide after being bullied.
I add the “allegedly” because Slate reporter Emily Bazelon recently dug up a ton of startling elisions and bits of factual slight-of-hand in the way Hirsch has presented the case of Tyler Long. Bully’s journalism is suspect, at best.
I by no means wish to shortchange the suffering of these families, which has been photographed in a fashion some might consider exploitative (or at the very least, invasive). But any mental-health professional will tell you that paying tribute to suicide cases as beloved martyrs who in death inspire a national movement is an extremely dangerous message to send to at-risk kids.
And that movement is what this is all about, correct? A few weeks ago, the Weinstein Company sent an email urging me to “take a stand against bullying” by posting an advertisement of their movie on my Twitter and Facebook. (Because that will make a difference.) How exactly does this help? Looks like just more fuck-word publicity mongering to this bullied kid.
Director: Lee Hirsch
Starring: Alex, Ja’Meya and Kelby