At one point in “Bully,” a new documentary about the complex problem of bullying in American high schools, a mother of a bullied high schooler confesses that she feels like both she and her husband have failed their son Alex. He is constantly picked on when he rides the bus to school every morning. His mother briefly blames herself, saying that she doesn’t feel like a good parent, before shifting the blame to her husband, an alpha male that we’ve previously seen encouraging Alex to confront his problem so that his younger sister won’t have to suffer for his silence.
That tactic of shifting blame rather than openly discussing the root causes of bullying is typical of co-directors Lee Hirsch and Alicia Dwyer‘s crassly manipulative approach. “Bully” encourages viewers to wallow in the helplessness of the film’s teenage victims and their parents.
To be clear: I don’t think “Bully” is offensively simplistic as it is because subjects like Alex are insincere, but rather because they are poorly represented. Nobody can question that Alex has been traumatized after receiving death threats and being sat on and stabbed with pencils on his morning school bus. Rather, the flaw in “Bully” is that every child that has been affected by bullying is represented simply as an innocent victim.
Even Ja’maya, a star basketball player that brings her mother’s gun to school with her one day, is celebrated because she’s able to come home after a few months’ stay in a psychiatric facility. The fact that Ja’maya perpetuated the cycle of violence that led her to be bullied in the first place is apparently irrelevant. Tears and outrage speak loudest in “Bully,” making it very easy to ignore the fact that Ja’maya is part of the problem, too. Hirsch and Dwyer tellingly begin “Bully” by having the father of Tyler, a teen that committed suicide, directly address the camera and talk about the loss of his son. However, he doesn’t talk about what he did or did not do while Tyler was alive but instead, he, like several other parents and concerned community members in “Bully,” complain about negligent school administrators, teachers and bus drivers for doing nothing to stop bullying while it’s happening.
The myth of universal non-involvement on the part of school administrators is briefly dispelled in one scene where the vice principal at Alex’s school tells him that she did talk to the boys that mercilessly harassed him on the bus. But Alex responds that the boys only stopped one kind of bullying but continued to hurt him in different ways. The scene ends with that petulant rebuke, encouraging viewers to cluck our tongues at the ineffectual and inattentive vice principal.
But while the buck is forcefully passed to Alex’s vice principal, nobody really pursues his mother, who tries and fails to elicit a response from her son when she asks him point blank if anything happened to him at school. Alex’s silence speaks for itself apparently, making it very easy for Hirsch and Dwyer to fill in the blanks with scenes of Alex eating lunch alone, good-naturedly comparing girls to candy bars or walking around the schoolyard with barbecue sauce smeared around his mouth. He is innocent and needs to be defended. But nobody in “Bully” can do that or knows how. So school officials are conveniently turned into scapegoats and cherubic Alex becomes the poster child for voiceless teenaged victims everywhere.
There are other teenagers featured in “Bully” that speak of similarly humiliating experiences. But the message they send about bullying is no less incoherent or shrill. For example, Kelby is a gay teenager that has just come out of the closet to her parents, fundamentalists that now embrace their daughter for who she is. Kelby is a tough kid, joking about how uncool she is for being targeted by a mini-van driven by bigots that intentionally hit her and ran. But when Kelby’s father tells us what he has done to protect his daughter from being picked on or hurt, it’s apparent that he’s not effecting much of a change. Kelby’s dad first tells us that he didn’t want to remove Kelby from school because she insisted that it would only encourage the bullies. This only sounds like a noble sentiment; after all, it’s implied that Ja’maya thought the same thing before she was pushed far enough to bring a gun to school.
What’s worse is the way Kelby’s story ends, not with an affirmation of her clique of friends who accept her, but with her dad boasting about how he pulled his daughter out of class and is now home-schooling her. Kelby acknowledges that this is a hasty stopgap solution, saying that being accepted will take time. But the announcement of Kelby’s home-schooling is, nonetheless, the resolution to her journey.
So Kelby’s story doesn’t end with a sign that the most important thing for Kelby is that she’s loved by friends and family that accept her. Instead, we get Kelby’s dad telling us that they’ve essentially ostracized her further in order to help her. That kind of thinking makes Kelby a great martyr, on par even with the relatively friendless Alex. But it also reveals Hirsch and Dwyer’s real priorities. Their victims cannot be empowered but rather pitied for their status as social pariahs. Difference is not a good thing in “Bully” but rather a frail quality and a mark of outcasts everywhere. The good intentions of everyone involved in making “Bully” don’t matter when the underlying logic to their film is so latently disparaging. [D]