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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



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