I’ve watched a lot of documentary films already this year, and have enjoyed virtually all of them. In terms of emotional response, though, Lee Hirch’s incredibly powerful and important film Bully is on a different level. It’s an absolute shame that the public interest in this documentary has all but died after the Weinstein vs. the MPAA Ratings Board hype ended because Bully is one of the most important documentaries since The Times of Harvey Milk (1988) or The Thin Blue Line (1984). This is a movie that every 11-17 year old should be required to watch because that is where it can do the most good.
Bully follows the lives of 5 different families whose lives have been effected by bullying in one way or another. One story is about the Long family, whose son committed suicide after being bullied for years at school. He was only 17 years old. A second story is about 12-year-old Alex (essentially the face of the film), who is constantly made fun of and bullied on his bus ride to and from school. The filmmakers sit-in on these rides, and show the children bullying this young boy. Thinking back to several moments in the movie has me in tears as I write this sentence, which is a nod at just how powerful a film Hirsch has put together.
There is also the story of Ja’Maya, who is spending time in a juvenile psychiatric hospital because she snapped on the bullies who would pick on her incessantly at school. She grabbed her mother’s gun one morning, and when the bullying began, she pulled it out on her attackers. All of this was caught on the bus’ security cameras, and she faces around 20 counts of aggravated assault. A fourth story is about a young, openly homosexual girl living in an ultra-conservative Oklahoma city, and her struggle for being accepted. The movie also introduces the story of Ty Smalley, an 11-year-old boy who committed suicide after being bullied relentlessly at school. Just the thought of Ty’s best friend, 10-year-old Trey, weeping next to Ty’s casket, him being a pallbearer for Ty, and the fond stories he tells of his brave friend hunting rabbits, is enough to make anyone weep. It’s one of the saddest sights to imagine, and my heart breaks for Trey, and Ty’s family. The main focus of Ty’s story is his father, Kirk, who has started the Stand for the Silent anti-bullying organization.
The movie spends a great deal of time with Alex and his lovable family. As the film progresses, I found myself liking this family – and Alex – more and more. Sure, he may look a little different, and act a little different, but as any mature, intelligent individual can attest, who isn’t different in one way or another? It’s when you get to know Alex that you really fall for the kid. He loves his mom, admires his dad, and fights with his closest sister; a typical twelve year old. The fact that this boy has to endure punching, stabbing, slapping, and ridicule on an everyday basis is nothing short of tragic, and that is the clear message these filmmakers are delivering.
The most touching and effective moments of Alex’s story comes when his mother asks him about his days, and he stands there in silence, staring off in the distance, too ashamed or embarrassed to even tell his mother about it. There’s one of these instances in particular that stands out: the filmmakers decided to show Alex’s parents some of the footage of the bullying, to which she is expectedly shocked. She tells Alex that these boys are not his friends like Alex thinks, and that friends are there to make you feel good about life, not to beat you up. Alex asks his mother, as genuine as ever, “if these people aren’t my friends, like you say, who is my friend?” He stares at his mother, hoping for a response, but she has nothing to say. It’s moments like these – and Bully is riddled with them – that make this film so poignant and powerful.
I am an incredibly emotional person, there’s no doubt about that, and I often find myself tearing up while watching movies. Of the 98-minute runtime, Bully had me in tears for at least 80 of those minutes, which has never happened before. It’s simply effective. I don’t have children, but I couldn’t help but imagine how I’d feel if I was one of these parents in this same situation. The love, the hope, and the change this movie aims to create permeates through every single frame. It is as genuine as any film I’ve ever seen. I could watch it over and over again – in fact, it has been replaying in the background while I’ve written this review – because the kids that are introduced radiate likability and hope for the future; all of them are well above their years in terms of intellect and maturity.
Bully is a film that I will show my kids – if I ever have any – and hope that it effects them half as much as it has effected me. If so, then I would know I was doing something right.
“Everything starts with one.”
This is the incredible opening song of the film. I have listened to it about twenty times on loop, so I thought I’d share it.