Although a confronting and heartbreaking look into a relevant social issue, Bully only skims the surface leaving viewers with more questions than answers.
Is there any doubt that bullying is the social cause of the moment? From daytime talk show rallying calls to social media crusades, the movement to stamp out bullying from all walks of life has gained steam over the years.
It is of no wonder then that Lee Hirsch’s controversial documentary Bully has become a lightning rod for anti-bullying advocates everywhere. It’s only unfortunate that the film feels like a story half told, with Bully not delving deep enough into the issue making for confronting yet unfulfilling viewing.
Immediately the severity of this situation is established when the film opens with the testimonial of a father speaking about the suicide of his son. Tyler Long killed himself at the age of 17 after years of unanswered bullying by his classmates. It is never right when a parent outgrows their child, and even worse when a child takes their own life due to a scourge that could have been subdued had the authorities – teachers, politicians, police and parents – diffused the situation earlier.
Five different case studies are featured throughout Bully, focusing on five different victims from five different parts of America’s mid-west and south-central territories. Two of those five victims are deceased, another is in juvenile detention, and the remaining two have been ostracised from their community. All of them have been let down by those who are supposed to protect them from harm.
A key figure in the film is Alex Libby, a spectacled, duck faced, inherently sweet kid whose high school life is a thing of daily torture both physical and mental. Hirsch follows Alex throughout his school day where he candidly captures other kids punch, choke, threaten and even stab Alex knowing full well a camera is in their presence. Later when Alex’s parents confronts his assistant principal about the attacks, she downplays any violence against Alex in such a patronising way that it’s all you can do from screaming “Liar!” at the top of your lungs.
Yet while Hirsch successfully lights a fire in the hearts of his viewers, he fails to get into the minds of the bully’s themselves. What drives them to hurt another human being? What do their parents think of their children being instigators of violence? Are these young psychopaths we’re dealing with or a product of bad parenting?
Bully also fails to go wider with Hirsch (purposefully?) sticking to smaller American communities, as if the big smoke of Los Angeles and New York City is resistant to bullying in their own school’s and communities.
Bully is a solid documentary but one that’s built to garner a specific reaction. In doing so Hirsch has missed an opportunity to go deeper into the issue, offering a faceless enemy to protest against. If change is in fact his goal, a more informative movie should have been made. As is stands Bully only updates an age old and widely believed consensus: bullying sucks!