We all remember the distinct times in our lives where someone has put us down, excluded us, or made us feel like we do not belong. I can remember noogies in the recess yard, pantsing in gym class, and the nasty nicknames only kids (who remain the cruelest creatures) could come up with. It has been said, by many, that bullying is a rite of passage and surviving said bullying makes you stronger. This was my general thinking on the issue until I sat down and watched the documentary Bully last week. We all know the saying, but often we forget how it applies. Bullying may have made me stronger but what about the kids it kills?
Lee Hirsch (the Director) set out on a mission to focus on three children and two families affected by bullying. His results are nothing short of shocking and elevate Bully to be one of the only MUST SEE films for the entire family. Most of Bully’s publicity came from an MPAA rating of R (which has since been overturned) but the real message of the film is suitable for everyone. It’s simple, sweet, and beautiful: Don’t be an asshole.
If it sounds like I am poking fun at the moral, I’m not. I’m being sincere. The culture in America is cutthroat and it starts in today’s schools. The film depicts kids harassed on the bus, by their lockers, and waiting to be picked up in the morning. The one thing I took away from the entire film is that bullying is a curable epidemic as long as elders set an example. Many of the kids in the film are mirroring adult behavior or copying what they have heard at home. From homophobia, to exclusionary actions, to hating people because they are plain different, the so called “bad guys” in this film learned their tactics from adults.
One of the hardest aspects of the film, one that I would suggest is bridged quite nicely, is the accessibility the filmmakers have to these subjects. We see families whose kids have committed suicide within weeks of filming and they give the purest and most honest moments. Most are chilling counts of how depressed their children were, how they tried to make the home environment a safe one, and how the school administration turned their backs. Your heart will bleed for these families and, in my theater, the impassioned pleas of two deceased boys’ fathers and one incarcerated girl’s mother brought the house to tears. If you’re not part of the solution then you’re part of the problem.
This brings us to the moral of the story: Don’t be an asshole. If what you read made you angry, I guarantee seeing this movie will make you furious. Kids are mean. I get it. I was teased and I teased back. One of my mother’s favorite stories involves a Nun making fun of her for being too tall and calling her the Jolly Green Giant. Life is hard. Growing up is harder. Humiliation and humbling moments make us who we are, but they’re not the moments that should decide whether we live or die. Kids have knobby knees, buck teeth, acne, hairy legs, webbed toes, hunch backs, eczema, nub noses, loud personalities, quiet demeanors, vivid imaginations, and absent-minded follies. Until generations of like-minded people make a forward step to act like human beings with compassion, empathy, and, above all else, not be assholes, we’ll continue to have bullying in schools.
If there is a problem with this film, it’s not in message but in production. Shot in digital, the focus and depth of field change mid-scene. It takes a while to adjust and may take a tiny bit away from the overall film. As per personal preference, I wish they kept the focus as open as the message.