By Teachers, For Teachers
By Claudia Puig, USA TODAY
Classrooms, cafeterias and school buses can be places of terrible anguish for millions of children, as powerfully demonstrated in Bully (***1/2 out of four, unrated), an insightful and moving documentary.
The film, which tells the story of five victims of bullying, should be required viewing for everyone between the ages of 8 and 18. In fact, it wouldn't hurt to make the documentary mandatory for parents, teachers and school officials as well. (Unfortunately, the MPAA denied the filmmakers' petition for a PG-13 rating due to concerns over profanity. The distributor is leaving it up to individual theaters to set admission policies.)
Why are these particular kids under attack? Most are shy or deemed somehow different from the norm, the victims of prejudice and ignorance. We get only fleeting glimpses of the bullies themselves. An analysis of their motivations is for another movie.
But we do get a disturbing look at the lack of accountability that surrounds the bullying environment. One assistant principal deserves audience boos for her cheerful clueless-ness. Director Lee Hirsch might have sought to include a more sympathetic school official, since surely they exist. But this documentary does not strive for even-handedness. His focus is on tormented children.
The camera simply rolls as kids tell their stories, documenting the ordeals of boys like Alex, a 12-year-old from Sioux City, Iowa, who is repeatedly threatened and pummeled on his daily school bus rides. When the abuse grows more punishing, Hirsch does something few documentarians do: He turns off the camera. Then he shows the footage to Alex's parents and school authorities. The boy's shaken mom and dad are met with empty promises when they question why schools can't be safe havens.
Ty, an 11-year-old from Perkins, Okla., took his life in May 2010 after enduring years of cruelty from his classmates. His grief-stricken parents launched an anti-bullying organization, Stand for the Silent, to prevent similar tragedies. Ty is featured only in photos and through the remembrances of his best buddy.
Attending one of the organization's vigils is 16-year-old Kelby, ostracized and taunted after she comes out as a lesbian in her small Oklahoma town of Tuttle. A former star athlete, the gregarious teen gives up sports after others refuse to be on a team with her. She attempts suicide three times before finding a small group of friends.
Tyler, a 17-year-old from Murray County, Georgia, hanged himself following years of abuse from kids and prolonged indifference by school officials. After his death, his parents hold a community meeting demanding accountability from the school, but no school authorities attend.
Police refuse to consider bullying as a motive in the actions of 14-year-old Ja'Meya. The Yazoo County, Miss., girl was picked on so often that she brandished a handgun. Though she never hurt anyone, she was incarcerated and charged with multiple felonies.
Bully forces audiences to face actions that are unthinkable, inexcusable and excruciatingly sad. It offers no solutions, only the testimony of brave youths. But by presenting an intimate glimpse into the dark heart of cruelty, the film hopes to inspire substantive discussion among parents, children and educators on how to deal with this dire and insidious problem.