The documentary Bully opens with footage of David Long of Murray County, Georgia watching home video footage of his son, Tyler. Initially, David claims, Tyler was a bright and vibrant little boy. But as he grew older, something in him changed. He became more and more withdrawn from other kids his age, preferring to be alone. Gradually, David and his wife, Tina, became aware that he was being picked on in school. In all likelihood, they didn’t know the full extent of their son’s physical and emotional torment until after he committed suicide in October of 2009. He was only seventeen years old. “If there is a heaven,” says David, bravely keeping his emotions in check, “I know that Tyler’s there. What keeps me going is the blind faith that I’ll see him again. That, and my wife and my other kids.” The Longs take action, organizing a town-hall meeting to address the ways in which the school system failed to protect their son.
Later in the film, we meet Perkins, Oklahoma residents Kirk and Laura Smalley as they attend the funeral of their eleven-year-old son, Ty, who also committed suicide after years of bullying. In their bedroom, Laura is slumped on the floor, sobbing uncontrollably. Kirk sits on the bed, distraught but able to speak. “We’re just a bunch of nobodies,” he says. “If this had happened to some politician’s kid, a law would be passed in a minute.” Ty’s best friend eventually admits that he was himself a bully back in the second grade; by the third grade, he realized what he was doing was wrong, and how that he’s eleven, he’s passionately anti bullying. So too are Ty’s parents. At the start of the academic year, Kirk, new to the internet, launches Stand for the Silent, an organization that will be dedicated to preventing school bullying and youth suicides.
Director Lee Hirsch, having himself been a victim of bullying, also interviews a number of kids and families during the course of the 2009/2010 academic school year. There’s fourteen-year-old Ja’Meya from Yazoo County, Mississippi, who’s nearing the end of her sentence in juvenile hall for brandishing a loaded shotgun at her tormentors in a crowded school bus. She and her mother anxiously await the outcome of her case. Quiet and unassuming, she knows she made a gigantic mistake and will carry a criminal record the rest of her life. There’s sixteen-year-old Kelby from Tuttle, Oklahoma; ever since coming out as a lesbian, she and her family have been ostracized from the community. Initially, she refuses to leave her school or her town, as she believes she can make a difference. As the film progresses, it becomes clearer that such a thing is easier said than done. At the very least, she has the support of her father and her friends, the latter especially.
The main focus of the film is twelve-year-old Alex from Sioux City, Iowa. Hirsch and his camera crew follow him throughout his seventh-grade year, capturing a constant stream of slurs, physical assaults, and threats from several bullies. He gets the worst of it on the school bus, where it seems the drivers couldn’t care less about any of the kids, let alone Alex. He gets along well with his family, although when it comes to school, he has stopped all communication with his parents. They’re understandably frustrated. This goes double for his mother, who gave birth to Alex after only twenty-six weeks of pregnancy and was told he wasn’t expected to survive. When the threats against Alex go one step too far, Hirsch decides it’s time to intervene; he shows the footage he shot to his parents, the police, and the school administrators.
His mother’s reaction is interesting. On the one hand, she’s infuriated with the school’s principal and vice principal, who give her the usual remarks about how it will be taken care of when it’s obvious that they don’t care one bit. On the other hand, she suddenly understands what Alex is feeling and why. It now makes sense to her that he comes him downplaying the seriousness of his situation and showing no emotion. She believes he’s modeling his father, although he asserts that Alex has never seen him cry simply because he isn’t around when it happens. The only time Alex displays a genuine emotional reaction is when he admits to the camera, through a quivering lip, that it has gotten to the point the he wishes he were the bully.
It’s now well known that Bully was the subject of controversy regarding its rating. Initially stamped with an R for some language, Katy Butler of Ann Arbor, Michigan created a petition to have the rating changed to PG-13, as she wanted to ensure its exposure to school-age kids. The MPAA refused to yield, and so the film was released by The Weinstein Company without a rating. Although I applaud their act of defiance, a film without a rating is given even less distribution than a film with an R rating. This is a travesty; this movie should be required viewing for all adolescents, teenagers, parents, bus drivers, and school administrators. If there isn’t a theater in your area showing it, e-mail Weinstein and request a DVD or internet screener. The day I saw it, I noticed in the audience a woman with three boys, who each looked between ten and twelve years old. I don’t know if they got anything out of the film, but I was tempted to approach the woman afterwards and congratulate her for her efforts.
Update: Since its original release date of March 30, 2012, the MPAA has given Bully a final rating of PG-13. Director Lee Hirsch announced this on his Facebook page, calling it “a great victory for us all.” Indeed, it truly is. Now you have no excuses. Take your kids to see it. They just might learn something valuable. You might too.
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