Alex is a sweet kid with huge lips, glasses and ears that stick out. To an adult, he’s an adorably awkward adolescent who hasn’t grown into his features. To his peers, he’s a target.
Every day his school bus ride is a gauntlet of humiliation. He’s punched, choked and stabbed with pencils. When he comes home, his sister calls him a loser. But Alex smiles because at this point he’s used to it.
His parents complain to the school, the school mildly scolds the bullies and the cycle of violence continues. It’s enough to leave Alex’s mother feeling helpless and Alex resigned to his fate.
Alex’s story is intertwined with the stories of four other tortured children. Lesbian Kelby is a pariah to students and teachers alike in her small Oklahoma town. Fourteen-year-old Ja’Maya was so distressed that she brought a gun on the bus and now resides in a state corrections mental hospital. Tyler Long’s parents represent him in the film, since his bullies drove him to take his life. The most disturbing case may be that of Ty Smalley, who committed suicide at 11.
All of that is disturbing. But Bully isn’t sure what to do with any of it.
That’s the problem with Bully, Lee Hirsch’s (Act of Honor) well meaning but frustrating documentary. Hirsch offers no answers, no deeper look at the problem. It’s a movie whose total purpose seems to be getting the audience to think that’s a shame.
The audience going to see Bully will be inclined to agree with Hirsch that bullies are mean, children who are regularly tormented are fragile and schools bad at handling the issue. That isn’t enough to make a good movie.
Actual bullies probably won’t be checking out the film. If they do, it might only encourage them, since video evidence of assault is apparently dismissed by school administrators.
Simply hoping that people will decide to be nicer is the equivalent of wishing on a star for world peace: It’s a lovely thought, but pretty ineffective. Anti-bullying rallies only serve to gather like-minded people to tsk at those causing problems.
As for winning hearts and minds, I doubt Bully will. At my screening two boys about Alex’s age yawned and squirmed, asking loudly is it over? as the credits rolled.
The film would more accurately be called Bullied, since its subjects are on the receiving end of mental and physical abuse. The root of the problem isn’t Alex or his tortured peers; it’s the kid behind the fist. If a movie wants to be part of the solution, that’s where it should be looking.