Meet Alex. He's 13 and goes to school in Sioux City, Iowa. He was born at 23 weeks and looks and behaves a little differently. He has no friends and is being bullied and bashed on the school bus home.
Meet Kelby. She's 16, from Oklahoma, and she came out at school. She's teased by her classmates - and even some teachers too. She was run down in the school carpark.
And meet Ja'Maya, age 14, who was so fed up with the constant taunts she took out a gun on the school bus (and was promptly sent to a psychiatric prison).
There are two other teens who are bullied in director Lee Hirsch's powerful fly-on-the-wall documentary about bullying in US schools. But they've already killed themselves. Instead, Hirsch interviews their grieving parents, who are desperate to do something about the endemic problem because the schools are not.
As you can see, Bully is no High School Musical. It's a tough watch. It's full of shocked and distraught parents and innocent kids who are sick of being victims or who think it's their fault. There's also an assistant principal who takes the kind of old-school approach to bullying ("boys will be boys") that contributes to the practice. You'll pray she's lost her job now.
To his credit, Hirsch gets remarkable access to the bullied teens, their parents and to the schools. He uses a small Canon 5D Mark II digital camera that often struggles to focus but is tiny enough to be ignored by the bullies and the victims.
At times, Hirsch goes into the schoolyards and hallways and on to the unruly school buses to deliver firsthand footage of bullying.
At other times, his camera observes teachers who imply it was the victim's fault. He captures little moments where parents say the wrong things to their bullied kids - or say nothing at all.
In one instance, Alex is bullied so badly on the bus that Hirsch shows the footage to Alex's shell-shocked parents, who pay a visit to that old-school assistant principal. ("she politicianed us," Alex's mother admits later.)
But while Bully is a moving and profound observational documentary about the abhorrent practice, it's far from comprehensive.
Hirsch follows only the victims, and while that certainly gains our sympathy, a stronger and more balanced film would have followed the perpetrators too, and probed why they felt the need to dominate others.
Hirsch also fails to offer any solutions to the endemic problem. But he rightly points the finger at an apathetic education system, which is clearly frightened by the prospect of litigation by either side.
But while Bully does feel exploitative at times, with one teary mother reliving the horror of finding her 17-year-old hanging in their bedroom closet, Bully is not meant to be a psychology lesson in bullying 101.
It's meant to be an intimate look behind the curtain at bullying in action, and in that respect, it succeeds admirably and sensitively.
After all, bullying does not have an easy or overnight solution. But you know what?
If every school put this profound and moving film on their syllabus or required viewing list, it might just do the trick.
· *The Wire Mag: Confronting documentary Bully looks at an entrenched problem which is costing young lives *.
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