Bully (***)

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Any review of the new documentary ‘Bully’ is of course going to have to mention the ratings controversy that’s come along with the film. After all, The Weinstein Company acquired the flick and Harvey Weinstein is nothing if not a master of milking publicity out of anything. It was no doubt surprising that the MPAA gave the doc an ‘R’ rating instead of a ‘PG-13’ (I’ll get to the rating more later on in the review), in effect preventing the very people who the film is speaking to from seeing the work, but what’s more surprising to me is how the story took off. It’s become a real cause, but now that the Brothers Weinstein released the movie unrated, we can judge it on its merits. In that regard, ‘Bully’ is a good but not great documentary isn’t quite as powerful as I was expecting/hoping it was. It’s filmed with a great deal of care by director Lee Hirsch, but I didn’t find it to be the hard hitting expose of bullying that many others have praised it as. There’s a bit of a message, but mostly it’s content to just document the horrors of bullying and to state that it needs to end. My only issue with the work is that it doesn’t really get below the surface and never really suggests a true way to fix things, besides just saying that things need to be fixed. It’s possible that I was just hoping for more of an answer to this question, but I was left (to a small degree) wondering what all the fuss over this film was about. It’s certainly a quality cinematic experience, but it’s not a phenomenal documentary in my eyes.

The documentary weaves together 5 similar yet different stories of bullying in the American school system. There’s Alex, a 12 year old who looks like your typical “geek” (though it actually has to do with being born prematurely) and is the subject of attacks on the school bus to and from school. There’s Kelby, a 16 year old who’s a pariah in her town due to coming out of the closet and living her life as a lesbian. There’s Ja’Maya, a young girl who brought a gun to her school to scare the bullies who had made her life a living hell. The other two stories involve the parents of Tyler Long and the parents of Ty Smalley, who have become anti-bullying activists after their children took their own lives due to the abuse they suffered. Tyler was 17 and Ty was just 11 years old. All of the stories show the abuse these children are dealing with, as well as the toll it takes on their families. They all approach the issue differently, but they all agree that this needs to stop. We spend the most time with Alex and the family of Tyler, so they’re the ones we learn the most about, but everyone gets their stories told.

Director Lee Hirsch (who’s also credited with co-writing the work with Cynthia Lowen) never out and out says how we as a country should deal with the issue, aside from urging people to stand up for their fellow human beings. The other problem for me with his choices is that he opted to solely focus on the heartland for his stories, almost ignoring the fact that this is truly a national issue. These problems kept the documentary from being something special in my eyes, but aside from them, Hirsch is a skilled documentarian and never overtly tries to pull on your heartstrings. He’s got a great movie in his future, but this missive on peer to peer bullying isn’t quite that documentary. There’s nothing overtly wrong with it, but it never is able to reach that next level that you hope that it would.

In terms of the rating, the ‘R’ is completely unwarranted. I was listening closely for the profanity that got it the rating, but I’m not convinced I ever heard it. In fact, most of the kids who describe the abuse to teachers spell out the words instead of actually saying them. It’s rather enraging to know that the under 17 crowd isn’t able to see this movie alone, schools won’t be able to go on trips to see it because of the rating, and overall it just prevents the target audience from being able to potentially be affected by it. I have my doubts that this documentary will change too much, but you never know, and it’s a shame that the MPAA got in the way yet again.

Overall, ‘Bully’ is a very solid documentary, but not one that you need to shout from the rooftops about. It’s a little bit overrated, but still definitely worth your time. I’m recommending it, but it does come with a mild caveat. Don’t expect an Oscar frontrunner (though a nomination could certainly wind up happening for it) or anything of the sort. This is simply a good movie that could have been great with some mild changes and a bit of a different focus. In the end, we have the flick that we have, and my problems aside, it’s still something you should see.

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