“Some kids had told him over and over that he was worthless and to go hang himself. And I think he got to the point where enough was enough…” – David Long, discussing the death of his 17-year old son, Tyler, by suicide. Sadly and unavoidably, bullying always finds a next victim. As we continue to become more exposed than ever, through a combination of the instant gratification society we now live in, as well as the interconnectivity of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and text messaging, the opportunity to bully and to become victimized by bullying has arguably never been more prevalent. On top of what occurs in direct person-to-person contact, we now all carry with us a quantifiable friend count on Facebook, a number of followers on Twitter, a Hit Total for our latest YouTube video. In this scorecard life we now find ourselves, more and more people hear us, see us, and respond to us, quicker, faster, and more directly than ever before. The access we provide to people is as exciting and potentially rewarding as it can be disquieting and alarming. But as social beings, we continue to push forward. We need interaction, we struggle with mattering. Inherently, we want to like and be liked. Respect is important. Finding common ground and mutual admiration for things with another person, or group of people, is fulfilling and sustainable. We are told that if we get knocked down, we should simply pick ourselves back up and start again. Don’t worry what other people think. Be an individual. Treat those how you yourself would like to be treated. Those basic tenements of social interaction should be infallible right? Lee Hirsch’s Bully is, at the time of this writing, a film poised to reach the zeitgeist, where teenagers and adults are brought into necessary discussions about the continuing onset of youth-based bullying and the sudden increase in awareness of teenage suicide, exacerbated in part by how easy it is to contact and reach people nowadays. Bullyfocuses on the more easily documentable form of bullying behavior, where words and physical actions intimidate, incite fear and loathing, and reduce some people to desperate and unfathomable measures to remedy their given situation.
We meet Alex, a 13-year old boy, who serves as the film’s focus point, with Hirsch utilizing Alex’s situations and experiences in school to drumbeat a constant theme of how shockingly easy it is for the victims of bullying and abuse to lock down, stay silent, and have ample reason to argue that simply ignoring a problem to have it go away is a rather impractical and antiquated approach. Alex is like any great number of kids – he is soft spoken, kind-hearted and smart. He aims to please others. Alex also has Asperger’s and is constantly targeted by bigger and older kids, who view him as a weak and convenient target. In addition to Alex, we meet a 16-year old lesbian named Kelby, bravely out in her Oklahoma community that has completely shunned her and her immediate family. Kelby has found comfort with her girlfriend, supportive parents, and a tightknit group of friends, but as rewarding as those friendships are for her, she also casually mentions that she has attempted suicide “probably three times or so.”
14-year old Mississippi teenager and honors student Ja’Meya resides in a supervised, mental health-focused, juvenile detention center after she responded to unrelenting bullying at school and on her bus by bringing her mother’s handgun to school. On a fateful bus ride that morning, Ja’Meya pulls out the gun and threatens everyone on the bus with it, prior to being disarmed by a fellow student before anyone was injured. The video footage of the incident is staggering to witness and as Hirsch introduces us to the cherubic Ja’Meya and her mother, we learn that Ja’Meya is having her presented for panel review and she may be able to return home once again. We also meet two families – the Longs and the Smalleys, who are struggling with moving forward after their sons’ suicides. The pain, the confusion, and lingering desperation we see on the face of David Long, a father who shares the story of Tyler, his 17-year old son who came home from school one day, walked into his closet, and hung himself, sets a harrowing and jaw-dropping tone that persists throughout the film. When we learn the story of the Smalleys’11-year old son, Ty, and later watch that boy’s father and Ty’s best friend walking through a field to a secret hideout the two boys’ shared, your heart cannot break into nearly enough pieces. Bullyis not a doom-and-gloom portmanteau of repetitive stories being shared again and again. Each story touches us, moves us to anger, tears, or a combination of both, and we feel compelled to react. And time and again we return to Alex. We see him threatened at the bus stop, ignored and mocked in equal measure at school. His bus rides are a living hell, where Alex is routinely choked, stabbed with pencils, punched, threatened, and abused, with everything caught on tape. When one kid, whose face is obscured, tells Alex that if he talks to him ever again, he will stab and maim Alex with a knife, Alex does not report this incident to anyone. The verbal and physical arrows are unrelenting for him and though many clearly hit their mark, Alex is quietly trying to hide the psychological and physical wounds of battle.
There is so much to consider, process, and rage about here that Bully forces us to react, shift in our seat, and verbally gasp and recoil from the behaviors shown on screen. Embedding these issues even deeper and more unbelievably are the school administrators and faculty, who troll the halls and respond to conflict out of context, in an effort to “keep the peace” and move everyone along. Late in the film, Alex has a meeting with an Assistant Principal at his school regarding events that the filmmakers brought to their attention. Despite being filmed and having all of these behaviors documented, the condescending nature of the administrator is shocking and it is hard to even begin to know which scenario is sadder – the fact that the administrators do nothing and are seemingly aloof to what is happening around them, or the fact that Alex easily catches the administrator in a “Gotcha!” moment, rendering her speechless. Obviously, Alex loses either way. Bully does so much right, but it is far from a perfect film. Distancing yourself from the visceral power of the film allows you to think about what is glaringly absent here. I find it problematic that Bully fails to ever really acknowledge the more modern and immediate form of cyberbullying, or the impact, positive and negative, that social media plays in our youths minds. In the aftermath of viral movements and campaigns such as “It Gets Better” and “To Write Love On Her Arms” for example, one huge component of the bullying paradox is completely left out of the discourse. I simply want more I think. I agree that the Alex’s, Ja’Meya’s, and Kelby’s of the world need their stories told, and by appearing in Bully, these young people will speak to countless numbers of kids and adults who need to hear their stories. But my mind drifted often to the boy who threatened Alex with the knife…is it wrong for me to want to know his story alongside the others? To seek a deeper exploration into what events may have led to that boy, in that moment, threatening to essentially murder a fellow classmate? And them my mind drifts to those observing and not taking part in stopping the behaviors? What are they thinking? Are they not complicit in these things occurring? Perhaps it is wrong or misguided of me to want Lee Hirsch’s film to go deeper, probe further, and move beyond the surface. Clearly, Bully is not seeking a be-all-and-end-all solution here and thankfully, Hirsch is not so cavalier or naïve to present one. He knows, as we all do, that to suggest a simple fix for all of this is preposterous. While Hirsch properly lets the individuals directly involved tell their stories, the missed opportunity, ironically, is that we only get one side of the story. Those grievances acknowledged and recognizing that my thirst may not have been entirely quenched, I was deeply moved by Bully, and perhaps more importantly, so was my almost 13-year old daughter. She was angry, emotional, empathetic, and we shared an honest, fairly provocative, and insightful conversation together on the ride back home. We were talking, sharing, and listening to one another in new and unforgettable ways.