Bully is a documentary chronicling the experiences and legacies of five teen and preteen youths, each victims of bullying in American middle schools and high schools. I say legacies, as two of these kids, Tyler Long and Ty Smalley, took their own lives due to the constant emotional or physical abuse imposed by their peers.
Alex Libby provides our most potent touchstone, as we witness his struggles first hand. On the bus ride home from school—the most taxing endeavor of his day—we see him offer to be “buddies” with his seatmate, only to have the boy threaten to shove a broomstick up his ass. Later, his attempt to sit three-to-a-seat on the crowded bus results in beatings from other boys.
It seems as if the cameras actually amp up the degree of bullying, rather than discourage it. There’s a macho element to targeting the weak and desperate, enhanced when the kids know they are being watched. This is why it’s so easy for it to become a chronic problem—the more a kid gets isolated, the more desperate for friends he becomes.
Naturally the film brings echoes of William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies. But with the fates of Long and Smalley making the stakes more apparent, Golding’s novel begins to feel less like an allegory and more like reality.
The families of these two boys are bent on getting action from their school boards to prevent bullying. But it is when the filmmakers, worried for Alex’s safety, eventually felt compelled to bring the footage to the attention of Alex’s parents and teachers that we really begin to see the depths of the problem.
After his teachers briefly reprimand the offenders, Alex voices his own concerns that nothing has been done to counteract the bullying he has endured in the past. However, rather than hearing him out with regard to his plight, his teacher all but scolds him for suggesting that they haven’t helped his situation.
Meanwhile, his father criticizes him for not standing up to the bullies, worried that Alex’s younger sister will come into the school being associated with a loser.
It seems not only as if the parents and teachers—who should be best equipped to act as the children’s keepers—have barely heard of bullying, but that they are completely clueless as to how difficult it is for a youth to defend against it.
Much of the press around Bully has focussed on its struggle to get a PG-13 rating in the States (re: frequent curse words), so that youths can actually see it. As valuable as this would be, I feel the biggest benefit would come from getting teachers in the audience.
Aside from director Lee Hirsch having crafted an artistically beautiful and socially hideous chronicle of our time, something needs to wake up our parents and educators: silent misery can be just as brutal as physical abuse, and they have a responsibility to protect our kids from both.