Last week the highly publicized documentary Bully, opening in Philadelphia this Friday, had its rating slashed from R to PG-13. The Weinstein Company, the film’s distributor, noted the occasion with solemn approval. Thanks to the Motion Picture Association of America’s good sense, an anti-bullying dialogue could reach more classrooms, dinner tables, and, fingers crossed, lawmakers.
This suggests that Bully is an important film. It is not. Harvey and Bob Weinstein, who have spent countless Decembers releasing prestige pictures yearned to be adored by audiences and Oscar voters (e.g., The King’s Speech), have pulled off a marvelous hoax. They’ve taken a piece of well-crafted propaganda and convinced the masses that it’s a serious, must-see film.
Bully follows three young people—and two sets of parents—during the 2009-10 school year. Bullying is the sad, common thread. Alex, a shy 12-year-old from Sioux City, Iowa, gets abused daily, and the camera captures the unfortunate proof. Kelby, 16, has seen her life unravel since she came out in the wrong setting: a small, God-fearing Oklahoma town. She’s tried to commit suicide three times. Fourteen-year-old Ja’Meya’s solution to the constant torment was to grab a loaded handgun from her mom’s closet, and pull it out on the school bus. (Fortunately, no one was hurt.) The Longs and the Smalleys, the couples who lost their boys to bullying-related suicides, fight through their sadness by raising awareness of their tragedies.
Director Lee Hirsch uses this material as drumsticks, and the audience’s attention span is in for a lengthy, John Bonham-like pounding. He takes us to America’s great middle to show that bullying is not the concern of effete, East Coast liberals. It affects real people. Alex, a solitary figure frequently sporting a Pittsburgh Steelers pullover, tosses pebbles in the railroad yard. Kelby (along with her family) learns the ugly side of Christian tolerance. Tough guy Southern and Midwestern accents wobble with sadness. “We’re nobodies,” says Kirk Smalley shortly after the death of his 11-year-old son, Ty, whose funeral features mourners in St. Louis Cardinals gear. Ja’Meya and her mom, both African-Americans, get included (I guess) to satisfy some producer-mandated diversity requirement.
All this is even more insulting because of the film’s puddle-deep insight. Bullying is terrible. (Of course.) It needs to be stopped. (Um, yeah.) These are not hard stances to take. It’s like making a documentary about the environment teetering on destruction or how ice cream sundaes are utterly delicious. Bully never bothers with evidence or provides answers. Everything is colored in the bleating hues of victimhood. Forget about learning what motivates another kid to torment a helpless classmate, or how good schools combat verbal and physical abuse—and why the bad ones don’t. Bring on the pathos! The film follows one school administrator, Kim Lockwood, but she’s portrayed as sweet and daft and shifty in dealing with Alex’s concerned parents. (I’m shocked Hirsch didn’t add a large red nose and rainbow wig to Lockwood in post-production.) At the very least, show us innovative solutions and ideas, not just holding a vigil, the activist equivalent of weekly staff meetings.
By offering 94 minutes of sob stories and zero insight—the number of subjects reduces everyone to a snapshot of woe—Bully constructs a barricade against criticism, which has only strengthened thanks to the accompanying ratings publicity and growing awareness that bullying should not be dismissed as a ritual of growing up. Hate this movie and you might as well be endorsing the ritualistic pummeling of 11-year-olds. This doesn’t upset me as a movie reviewer; it’s not like Hirsch has discovered the magical critical loophole Pauline Kael sealed off in 1974. It bothers me as someone who abhors being conned into taking a side, who hates seeing people portrayed as performers in a pity burlesque. To recognize bullying, moviegoers shouldn’t be bullied themselves—and they shouldn’t greet it as some kind of grand awakening.