'Kids being kids?' Let's all grow up.
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Apr. 13, 2012
For weeks, the documentary "Bully" has been the subject of impassioned discussion and debate, as an increasingly large and vocal campaign has swirled around yet another dumb ratings decision from the MPAA.
Because of a few f-bombs, the ratings board, in the blinkered hypocrisy that passes for wisdom, bestowed an R rating on the film while they let such movies as the super-violent "Hunger Games" sail through the gates with a far less pejorative PG-13.
Playing into "Bully's" distributor's hands, the MPAA stood its ground until the outcry - and priceless publicity - reached a fevered pitch, at which point it suddenly saw fit to change the rating to PG-13.
Now that "Bully" has arrived in theaters, viewers are likely to wonder what all the fuss was about.
This intimate, straightforward, often wrenching portrait of five families dealing with bullying and its aftermath doesn't hold many surprises at a time when such campaigns as "It Gets Better" and special programming on kids' cable networks are bringing the issue to the fore. Then again, these heartbreaking stories of victimization, perseverance and adult cluelessness bring a necessary human face to an experience all too often banished to the realm of statistics or hazy "kids will be kids" denial.
Over the course of a school year, filmmakers Lee Hirsch and Cynthia Lowen got to know three kids whose lives were being affected by bullying: Ja'Meya, 14, who grew so frustrated with bullies that she brought her mother's handgun on the school bus, resulting in a spell in juvenile detention; Kelby, an Oklahoma teenager whose sexual orientation makes her the butt of cruel jokes not just from her classmates but also from her teachers; and Alex, a Sioux City, Iowa, 12-year-old who is called "Fish Face" by his peers and seems as isolated by his parents' lack of understanding as he is by the utter incompetence of school administrators who think everything can be solved with a handshake or a hug.
In fact, it's the ineptitude of the adults that stands out in starkest relief in "Bully," whose agonizing central stories are bookended with the accounts of two boys who took their own lives after being mercilessly taunted.
Hirsch and Lowen's decision not to interrogate the Sioux City school officials more directly - or, similarly, to question the bullies themselves or their families - makes the film an effective galvanizing tool to spark anti-bullying campaigns, but not particularly probing or fully rounded. (The film ends with a rousing anti-bullying demonstration in Oklahoma City; it would have been useful to learn about tactics that are already proving successful, as well as the importance of cyber-ethics.)
Still, there's no doubt that "Bully" presents a bracing view, not only of childhood cruelty but youthful resilience and fortitude. It has a useful, even crucial, role to play in starting an important conversation and keeping it going. With the new PG-13 seal of approval, the film should be able to find purchase not just in theaters but in schools and community centers as well. See it, talk about it and pass it on.
Contains brief profanity.
An earlier version of this story misstated the location of a demonstration in the film.