Bullying is a serious problem, or at least it’s now being recognized as one. But it’s also a layered issue that can’t simply be summed up by watching the suffering of kids and the gross negligence of school administrators. Lee Hirsch’s documentary Bully can never get beyond observing the problem, and the film’s shapeless structure obfuscates more than it illuminates. Hirsch finds a compelling central figure, but he’s constantly distracted by the plight of other bullied kids, and yet he’s unwilling to explore the details and questions raised by those kids’ situation. Worst of all, Bully relies on highly questionable manipulation in order to make its point, but it has no point when it comes to stopping bulling. It just has a website.
The movie opens with a heartbreaking scene of David Long telling how his son Tyler committed suicide because of bullying. It’s a powerful opening, and it lets the audience know the stakes and urgency of the film’s subject. We then move on to Alex, a 12-year-old boy in Sioux City, Iowa, who could be the poster child for what a bullied kid looks like. He’s sweet, but scrawny, nerdy-looking, and socially awkward. Hirsch takes an unflinching look at how Alex is mistreated, and these scenes take bullying out of the abstract. We also see how an administrator at Alex’s school is completely useless at stopping bullying if she manages to recognize it all.
But then Hirsch begins to float around to other stories of bullying without ever really giving the individual narratives the attention they deserve. We spend some time with Shelby, a 16-year-old lesbian living in a small town in Oklahoma. When she came out, she became not only a target of bullies, but a social pariah to the point where even her teachers would verbally abuse this helpless teen. It’s a strong opportunity for Hirsch to explore how bullying can expand beyond the schoolyard and into an entire community. What kind of social attitudes have to exist to cause such widespread cruelty upon a teenager, and can these attitudes ever be changed? Hirsch doesn’t bother to tackle the issue, and instead he moves to the next bullied child.
We see Ja’meya, a 14-year-old girl in Yazoo County, Mississippi, who brought a gun onto a school bus and threatened her fellow students because she was being bullied (thankfully, no one was injured). There’s clearly more to her story, but Hirsch has enough footage to make his point: bullying causes drastic and potentially tragic consequences. Later on, we meet Devon, a young boy who speaks during a town hall meeting held by Tyler Long’s parents. Hirsch briefly spends some time with Devon, who explains that he was relentlessly bullied until he decided to physically fight back, and then he didn’t get bullied anymore. So is physical violence the answer? We don’t know because Hirsch isn’t willing to engage that viewpoint.
Hirsch’s only real argument is how bullying isn’t being treated as a serious issue. Parents don’t see it, and administrators don’t know how to deal with it. Some of the documentary’s most powerful scenes involve the aforementioned school administrator whose ineptitude and ignorance is darkly comic. At one point, she notices two kids fighting on the playground, and she tries to make them shake hands as if that will make everything alright. One student refuses, and after letting the other kid go, she chastises him for his refusal. He tries to explain that he’s being relentlessly bullied by the other kid, but she thinks he’s being equally mean because he wouldn’t shake the bully’s hand. It’s infuriating to watch, and we all know this isn’t an isolated incident. Administrators and teachers aren’t doing anything, and in some cases, they’re actually make lives worse.
So what can parents and bullied kids do when they’re treated like this? How do they confront bullies? How do parents force administrators to actually stop bullying rather than just giving the issue lip service and letting it continue? Hirsch doesn’t know or he doesn’t care to answer. Instead, his exploration eventually turns into exploitation. If we can’t understand the root causes of bullying, and if we don’t know how to stop it, then Hirsch is basically just showing us how kids are tortured by their peers and sometimes commit suicide as a result.
Or do they? According to Slate, Tyler Long suffered from mental illness. Because the Longs are suing the Murray County School District, court documents have revealed controversial elements regarding his suicide. For example, the movie doesn’t mention how three weeks before Tyler’s death, they took him to a psychologist, but they never mentioned to the psychologist their concerns about their son being bullied or him contemplating suicide. Hirsch chose to omit this material, explaining:
“I really felt that by not disclosing it, we wouldn’t allow the audience to prejudge,” he said. “It was a decision we thought about a lot. Ultimately, we thought the film would be more powerful without it.”
And that’s disgusting. In insults the memory of Tyler Long, and it makes his parents into martyrs when they should be people with whom the parents in the audience can relate to. Hirsch chooses to raise awareness by twisting facts and by being fundamentally dishonest with his audience because it’s “more powerful.” This approach turns people into propaganda, and propaganda isn’t about solutions.
For Bully, a solution is nothing more than a tragedy + devoted parent + Internet connection. After 11-year-old Ty Smalley committed suicide as a result of bullying, his father Kirk began a campaign on Facebook and then founded the organization Stand for the Silent. The organization coordinates vigils and tries to raise awareness about bullying. For Hirsch, awareness is enough. There’s no concrete proof about how awareness stops bullying (the film’s best advice is when Kirk tells a group of kids that they should befriend those who are being bullied), and Hirsch never shows a direct correlation between awareness and bullying. The best the movie can do is force people to recognize that bullying is a serious problem, but those who already fail to recognize it are probably not going to see Bully.
The people most likely to see Bully are parents and kids who have been directly affected by bullying. The movie has nothing for them. Bully doesn’t tell bullied kids like Alex how they can fight back. Bully doesn’t tell parents how they can protect their kids and deal with incompetent administrators. It tells them to go to a website. Hirsch’s documentary pretends it’s a call to arms, but it’s nothing more than mumbled suggestion to wear a wristband.
(And to save you time and money, go to thebullyproject.com, which has serious advice and information on how to stop bullying)