It almost feels wrong to say anything bad about Bully, Lee Hirsch’s documentary on bullying in American public school systems. In addition to the film’s noble goals, it has also faced a rather ludicrous dispute involving its rating, which would affect its ability to be screened in elementary and middle schools. This is tough material to deal with, and at the very least, Hirsch, the rest of the crew, and the Weinstein Company should be applauded for how hard they’ve fought to promote not just the film, but also its message. All the same, Bully falters in two critical areas that severely hamper its effectiveness from both ethical and filmmaking standpoints.
Bully wastes no time in getting to the hard hitting material: the opening sequence revolves around the Long family, whose oldest son committed suicide after torment from his classmates became too much. Hirsch gives us plenty of moments like this revelation that hit quite hard, including a mind-boggling and infuriating scene involving parents and the school administrator they appeal to for change. There’s no question that there’s enough material covering both kids and their families, but Hirsch seems more interested simply in showing the footage instead of crafting it into something more informative, insightful, and purpose-driven. For, as good of a look at bullying as the film gives us, the film’s goal seems to stop at “bully is bad, let’s make it stop,” without ever trying to probe into the deeper issues, such as the motivations for bullying. Obviously, this is a documentary, so there are no ‘characters,’ but that doesn’t stop the film from pulling out moments that seem engineered to make us hiss as if we were seeing a villain twirling his mustache.
Not that the film was ever going to try and go so far as to excuse the actions of the bullies, but a little examination of them wouldn’t have had adverse effects. It would have only helped, and could have made Bully a much richer viewing experience. And even among the subjects that it does focus on, Hirsch and company fumble the ball more than once. Each of the stories of the central kids – Alex, Kelby, and Ja’Maya – would have been enough to illuminate the issues of bullying, so it’s admirable that the film takes on all of them, their families, and the Long family. Yet even though each kid and/or family is allotted time, Hirsch and company fail to effectively manage them all fairly. Kelby Johnson, a high school girl who finds her whole family practically ostracized after she comes out as a lesbian, is particularly let down, as though Hirsch felt that they had enough material of some of the other families and didn’t need to give her as much screen time.
And if Bully doesn’t have enough problems tripping up its noble (albeit overly simplistic) intentions, it can be a bit of a mess from a production standpoint as well. Right off of the bat, the film has distracting issues in audio and focus, and they don’t stop for the entire 100 minute run time. It may seem nit picky, but it has to be said: there are times when Bully simply isn’t well-made, and just like all of the aforementioned issues, it keeps the film from being as effective and powerful as it could be. Bully is ultimately a success, but not by much. For all of the effective looks at bullying and administrative negligence, though, superficiality gets in the way often enough to make you wish that there was another, better documentary coming out soon covering the same basic subject matter. People like Alex or Kelby deserve to have their stories told, but they deserve to be part of a much better film, one that is willing to delve deeper into its material and its subjects, instead of telling us what we more or less already know.
Review by Jordan Baker