Bully Required Viewing for Every Parent, Student, and School Administrator
Everyone has spent months reading reviews of Bully, the new horrifying and heart-wrenching documentary on school bullying, that proclaimed it “impossible to watch” and “a parent’s worst nightmare.” But nothing can prepare you for the 94 minutes that lie ahead of you in the theater.
Nothing can prepare you for watching an 11-year-old boy serve as a pallbearer for his best and only friend, also 11, who just committed suicide. Nothing can prepare you for a mother showing you the closet in which her 17-year-old son hanged himself. And absolutely nothing can prepare you for the complete and utter obliviousness and negligence of the school administrators whose schools are ravaged by school bullying.
Bully isn’t so much a documentary, but a horror film. It’s kids being beyond cruel to other kids, strangling, stabbing, punching, and emotionally abusing their peers. It’s enough to make The Hunger Games, a movie about kids killing kids in a fight to the death, look like child’s play.
Before seeing this documentary, few can even grasp how serious school bullying actually is, partially because it’s unimaginably horrible and partially because we’ve spent decades excusing it as “kids will be kids” or “boys will be boys.”
Perhaps the most brilliant aspect of this jarring documentary is its ability to make the issue personal. The director, Lee Hirsch, a victim of school bullying himself, doesn’t use facts and charts to convey the horrors of bullying to the audience. He puts you close, at times uncomfortably and painfully close, to the victims and their families. It’s only through living with the families featured in the documentary that the audience can grasp how important an issue school bullying really is.
Bully follows five families whose lives are affected daily by school bullying. Two of the families are still struggling to cope with the suicides of their sons, 17-year-old Tyler Long and 11-year-old Ty Smalley. The other three families have children that still have to handle brunt of bullying. Ja’Meya, a young Mississippi teenager, awaits trial for pulling a gun on her tormenters, and Kelby, lesbian student from Oklahoma, experiences alienation and contempt from her peers and their families.
But it’s Alex, a caring and sensitive twelve-year-old, who just breaks your heart. He’s the one you spend every day thinking about, hoping that he’s still okay.
Alex begins by saying, “I like learning, but I have trouble making friends.” Throughout the day, Alex is called anything from “fishface” to vulgar expletives that had to be edited out of the final cut of the film to secure a PG-13 rating. He is physically beaten on the school bus everyday. And no one seems to know or care.
The most shocking part of Bully is not watching mere children viciously beat each other. It’s watching school administrators not only fail to act, but fail to grasp that there is even a problem.
The school administrators prove that there is a systematic failure to address a fatal, life-altering problem. Kim Lockwood, the detestable and wildly incompetent assistant principal at Alex’s middle school in Sioux City, essentially dismisses Alex’s parents who ask her to do something to protect their son on the school bus. The school administrators at Tyler Long’s high school didn’t even show up to a school board meeting held by Tyler’s parents to help fix the bullying problem. Admittedly, Bully noticeably doesn’t feature the juvenile bullies personally, but the school administrators who do absolutely nothing are far better villains anyway.
Bully is an eye-opening, noble foray into a grossly ignored problem. It’s the kind of film that makes you think twice about your own experiences throughout school and as a parent. But perhaps, more importantly, it’s the kind of film that has the potential to actually make a difference in the lives of the children it features and the lives of children across the country for years to come.