Shining a Light

'Bully'—controversial before it was released—tells heartbreaking stories about a big problem

According to the national nonprofit STOMP Out Bullying, one in four teens is bullied, and one in five admits to being a bully. The same organization indicates that harassment of LGBT students hovers around 90 percent nationwide.

The epidemic is so widespread and dangerous that the term bullycide has been introduced to account for suicides that have root causes in teen bullying. The name implies quite plainly that these deaths could be prevented.

When it got this way—and how it got this way—is not the subject of Bully. Director Lee Hirsch chooses instead to view the issue contemporaneously. He selects a handful of stories: gay bullying, picking on a student for his appearance, a girl who reached her breaking point. Two of the students had already taken their own lives, so Hirsch showcases the families left behind as they begin to cope with the loss and take steps to prevent it happening to others.

Though it's difficult to criticize a movie for what it doesn't present and may never have intended to, Hirsch zeroes in on small, rural communities in Georgia, Mississippi, Iowa and Texas, and two in Oklahoma. Perhaps there was resistance to letting him into larger school systems, but according to the film, 13 million students will be bullied this year. That number can't be reached only in rural areas concentrated in the South and Midwest.

In addition to capturing remarkable, gripping and often unsettling footage, Hirsch has taken a holistic approach to show how to combat bullying when it rears its ugly head. The film is not just instructive for parents, who must keep a keen eye out for the warning signs, but also for victims, siblings, other students, school administrators and public leaders. After Ty Smalley shot himself on the day he was suspended for fighting back, a school official is quoted in the film as saying she didn't believe they had a bullying "problem." A "problem" must be two or more suicides. Jesus.

Bully is undeniably sobering, and it does exhort teachers and schools to better police and punish this sort of behavior. In reality, it's an all-hands-on-deck battle, one that begins with communication between parents and students, parents and the school, and the school and students. The film does feel a little disjointed; each story has so much to tell us that, while they work together in unison, fewer of them might have made the film more thorough and more potent.

There was, as you may know, some controversy about a proposed Motion Picture Association of America rating for Bully. It was originally rated R because of language. Distributor Harvey Weinstein—never one to circumvent a good controversy—blasted the rating and got his film much more publicity for free than he will likely ever buy. Weinstein's argument—that a film that shines a light on teen bullying ought to be available to teenagers—was sound. His reaction was not: The Weinstein Company vowed to release the film unrated instead of cutting three profanities. It would have meant being kept out of some major chains that refuse to exhibit unrated movies, further crippling the film's chances to reach its intended audience. In the end, the filmmakers acquiesced and made some edits; the PG-13 rating was granted.

Perhaps Lee Hirsch appreciates the attention, and perhaps it will sell more tickets for the cause, an absolutely good one. There is a lesson, however, in Weinstein's antics—here and multiple times in his storied career—that proves bullying doesn't stop once you're out of high school. So maybe there's something to learn here even for those of us without kids.

Bully does not have as much weight as its subject, and while its stories are chilling and heartbreaking, that has less to do with the film than what it showcases. But what do we want documentaries to do? They can't solve all the world's problems, but they can shine a light upon them. And so it is with Bully: It falls somewhere between a diagnosis of the problem and a prescription—but at least it's out there.

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