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'Bully' Shines a Cold, Harsh Light on Social Blindness

By tt stern-enzi and Staff · April 17th, 2012 · Movies
To say that we need to address the topic of bullying in our schools, communities and society at large should mean that the Weinstein Company’s efforts to drum up controversy (and publicity) surrounding their battle with the MPAA over the rating of Lee Hirsch’s documentary, Bully, have worked. 

Sadly, that is not the case. Expanding to just over 150 screens this past weekend, Bully pulled in a paltry $530,000, which accounts for concessions during a Tuesday afternoon showing of The Hunger Games.

But to focus on that point distracts us from a debate about bullying and the trigger effect Bully could (and should) have. I caught the film on a Friday, the first screening of the morning, with a handful of adults who were obviously playing hooky from work. A couple even dared to bring their children. What struck me right from the start was how not just the film but the subject itself forces viewers to recall moments in their own lives, flashpoints when they were either victims of aggression, possibly bullies, or at the very least passive witnesses to bullying behavior. 

For those of us of a certain age (mid-to-late thirties or older), we might be willing to admit to the shame of having been a target, but we are also likely to have memories of a parent (our own or someone else’s in the community) or a school administrator who took the time to pull us aside, both bully and victim, and helped to settle the matter before it got out of hand.

Or maybe we had what feels like a classic standoff, an after-school showdown where punches may have been thrown or we wrestled briefly before being pulled apart and somewhere in that dust-up a bit of resolution emerged, and that was that.

What Hirsch’s film illustrates, though, is that such satisfactory conclusions don’t result today. Time after time, the film captures a child or a victim’s parent bemoaning the fact that our children aren’t safe when they cross the threshold from home into the world because there’s no one in the world looking out for them, at least not anyone with the power to affect change. School administrators are overburdened with too many kids to keep track of and too few resources to allocate to the problem. (This is my attempt to sugarcoat the reality — they’re really merely turning a blind eye to the problem.) 

Don’t assume I’m letting parents or neighbors off the hook here. We have our roles in this, too. We have a responsibility to our children, but it doesn’t stop there. We should remind our kids to step up and stand beside those who are being bullied. They should know that if they back up a victim in a tight spot, we would have their backs as well.

Be a friend, the film says explicitly, whether through the voices of fathers who have lost teenage sons to suicide or parents willing to relocate from the “heartland” to an urban center where a gay/lesbian child might find a more inclusive community or a mother praying for the freedom of a daughter pushed to the dangerous point of taking the rapidly escalating matters into her own hands. Be a friend.

And for us, the audience, the first step toward being a true friend is to make certain that we go see the film, then, follow up by talking about it. Share stories of past bullying and the means to resolution. But don’t slip up and surrender to the belief that the job is over and the victory won. Be vigilant. Know that at any given moment, someone, somewhere is staring into the face of a bully and needs support.

Only a few short days have passed since I saw Bully, but I have thought about the film and the stories of the brave souls, families and victims profiled (and remembered my own experiences) and I hope that I will continue to do so in the days to come. That is the kind of impact film should have on its audience. (PG-13) Grade: A



04.18.2012 at 10:56 Reply

People are not going because it is not mindless entertainment.  People want to be entertained and escape from their world for a couple of hours, not get hit with the reality that bullying is a real problem in every community.  We need to stop and see this movie, and tell people watching it will lead them to magically get healthier.


04.18.2012 at 11:35 Reply

I thought the recent South Park "Bullying" episode made a great point — if it is so hugely important for everyone on the planet to see this film, why isn't it just made available for free on the internet?


04.18.2012 at 09:56 Reply

Quote from you, "we might be willing to admit to the shame of having been a target"

What?  As an adult now, but was someone who was seriously bullied in school for about 12 years I can tell you that not all of us feel any sort of "shame" in what happened to us.  Many of us are VERY angry for what it took from us, for what it stole from us.  My entire life was altered due to what happened to me.  I have CPTSD, security issues, and lots of anxiety.  Anything that reminds me of things that happened, stress that I get put under, or get confronted in nearly any way and I fall apart.  But "shame"?  No. I have no shame. I did nothing to be ashamed. 


04.19.2012 at 08:45 Reply

Kenton - You're right!  I don't see that comment on here.  There is no shame in being the target.  You were harmed by others.  Your anger is justified and the bullying has changed your life.  Is it possible to work through the anger and use it to make something good happen in life.  Wishing you peace and courage to overcome!


04.20.2012 at 01:01 Reply

I always thought that one very interesting aspect of the bullying phenomenon is that it overwhelmingly occurs in the most socialistic establisment in our country, public schools.  Not sure if there is any grand lesson in that observation but it is probably at least useful to ponder why school administrators (despite their  prodigious oversight powers) are almost universally incapable of keeping kids of vastly different natures from each other's throats.  Is there a general lesson in this?