By Eric Kohn | Indiewire April 22, 2011 at 7:28AM
"Tell me how to fix this," moans a frustrated vice principal in "Bully," voicing the movie's primary concern and also concisely illustrating its problem. Documentarian Lee Hirsch follows a handful of bullied children across the country, as their constant schoolyard abuse becomes symbolic of a larger national dilemma. Constantly dismissed as a simple fact of life, the morbid effect of unmitigated harassment on alienated young people gets a candid treatment in Hirsch's powerfully unsettling survey.
Editor's note: This review originally ran during the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival. "Bully" opens in limited release this Friday.
Arriving on the coattails of a mainstream discourse on bullying that followed last year's rash of gay teen suicides, "Bully" is both extremely topical and universally moving, a collage of young voices suppressed by ambivalence.
Hirsch's verité approach oscillates between observing the problem and forming a concise cinematic essay, resulting in an occasionally uneven narrative. Regardless, the movie never fails to provoke a strong reaction. It opens by recounting Georgia teen Tyler Long's 2009 suicide, which followed a pattern of bullying that he felt had grown insurmountable. Rather than burrowing into their grief, Longs' parents decide to speak out about the negligence that prevented their son from finding a cure to his desperation.
From there, Hirsch (whose previous credits include the apartheid-centered "Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony") branches out across the country, following several children facing different strains of bullying with no end in sight. The most devastating of these mini-stories involves the plight of 14-year-old Alex, an Iowa adolescent constantly harassed by innumerable students while administrators either looked the other way or issued the disciplinary equivalent of a shrug.
Other subjects include 16-year-old lesbian Kelby, who insists on continuing to attend her Oklahoma school despite its rampant homophobia, and Ja'meya, a 14-year-old Missourian girl facing serious jail time for pulling a gun on verbally abusive classmates. Over the course of the movie, the case studies blend together to reveal certain commonalities -- chief among them the apparent indifference of the school executives. However, "Bully" hardly seeks vengeance against lackluster educators; it only issues a plea, through the voices of many angry parents, that they do their jobs.
With his unprecedented access, Hirsch gives viewers the sense of first-hand perspective. His footage of physical and verbal abuse can make you feel complicit: Alex receives death threats and other random abuse each morning on the bus while the camera sits idly by. Eventually, Hirsch turns the footage over to the school in the hopes of helping to improve the situation, but it's hard to say if the resulting disciplinary measures represent a sincere effort to make a difference or only appear that way because of the film crew's presence. Regardless, Hirsch even manages to capture a tense series of interviews with Alex's bullies, clips that will probably gain more power as the kids age and presumably express remorse.
By then, of course, it will be too late. "Bully" contains an immediacy that deepens its message. It's "not just a film," as the filmmaker has explained in press notes. The ending underlines that assertion, as it moves beyond specific stories and marks the beginning of a new chapter, where the actions the movie calls for finally come to fruition.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? The Weinstein Company bought "Bully" out of the Tribeca Film Festival last year and has since fought a much-publicized battle to reverse the MPAA's decision to give the movie an R-rating. Having now decided to release it unrated, the distributor stands a good chance of benefiting from months of keeping awareness of the movie high among activist groups and the many communities coping with bullies around the country. It stands a good chance of performing well not only this weekend but for many weeks to come.
Criticwire grade: B+