In the interest of starting this review with something upbeat before going in-depth about the dark subject matter, “Bully” recently received some good news. The controversial documentary has received a “PG-13” rating, rather than the contested “R,” meaning more kids will be able to see this powerful picture.
This is a relief, because all students, parents and school staff should view this educational film.
“Bully” is primarily about five individuals who have been abused by cruel jerks, whom only pick on them because they are different. Three of them are alive when the movie begins, but two of the youths committed suicide prior to filming and information about them is gleaned mostly through their parents.
Alex Libby is a 12-year-old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome who faces constant daily abuse from tormentors even before he gets on his school bus. Kelby Johnson, a good-hearted lesbian, is generally not accepted in her conservative school in Oklahoma. The third bully victim, Ja’Meya Jackson, is an intelligent African-American girl who is in a juvenile detention facility for threatening her menacing offenders with a gun she stole from her mother’s closet.
This is pretty grim material, but it is important that director Lee Hirsch does not sugarcoat the real-life stories. In fact, the filmmaker is so confident in his approach that he never makes an appearance and lets those who are impacted by this problem speak for themselves.
It is clear Hirsch tries to be as authentic as possible before the opening credits appear on screen. The first person introduced is David Long, the father of Tyler, a boy who took his life as a result of unfair treatment by classmates. His words are so heartbreaking, it wouldn’t be surprising if spectators reached for tissues within the first five minutes of “Bully.”
The other victim who killed himself was Ty Smalley. Oddly enough, his story leads to some hopeful moments. Smalley’s dad launches an anti-bully organization, which results in an emotionally powerful scene in the climax. His best friend is also interviewed; and though his screen time is brief, the footage is one of the biggest surprises “Bully” has to offer.
Though he calls himself a former bully, he comes across as a very nice person who now believes there is no justification for being mean. His interview is beautifully poignant and should affect many audience members.
It would be fair to argue it is impossible to address every impact of bullying in less than two hours, yet Hirsch comes close. Right before “Bully” concludes, there is a brief coda that is deceptively simple yet also extremely effective.
Possible spoiler alert: The words are, “stop bullying.” Even a toddler can understand how essential that message is.
By focusing on a problem occurring on every single campus around the world, “Bully” will be an unforgettable feature for many. Thank goodness the rating brouhaha with the Motion Picture Association of America has concluded.
Information about “Bully” can be found at thebullyproject.com.