There are many appalling moments witnessed and described in Lee Hirsch’s documentary Bully: children beaten and humiliated, ostracized by their peers and misunderstood by their parents, left to face an apparently heartless world without a soul to turn to. But nothing makes the blood boil like the confrontation between the parents of 12-year-old Alex and a school administrator in Sioux City, Iowa. Hirsch and his crew have been following Alex throughout the school year, watching as the awkward, pensive boy—born three months premature, with close-set eyes and a flattened, asymmetrical nose—reaches out for companionship and is violently rebuffed. One day, he sits next to an older boy on the school bus and says, with heartbreaking guilelessness, “You’re my buddy, okay?” The boy’s responds, “I will fucking end you,” and goes on to list the weapons he’ll have with him the next time Alex makes an overture.
The situation comes to a head when, after Alex is punched, strangled, and stabbed with a pencil, the filmmakers share the footage with Alex’s family, fearing that his physical safety may be endangered. His parents, who know Alex has been bullied but not to what extent, take the footage to a meeting with his school administrator, a chipper, middle-aged blonde woman who responds with theatrical concern and an utter lack of alarm. “Buses are notoriously bad places for a lot of kids,” she says, talking to Alex’s parents as she might an agitated toddler. She offers to put Alex on a different bus, but adds, “I’ve ridden [bus] 54, and those kids were as good as gold.”
Time and again in Bully, parents describe running up against such blithe assurances, including the parents of 17-year-old Tyler Lee Long and 11-year-old Ty Field-Smalley, both of whom took their own lives after years of being abused by their classmates and neglected by the institutions charged with their care. In the case of Kelby, an outgoing 16-year-old from tiny Tuttle, Oklahoma, it was worse. After Kelby came out as a lesbian, one teacher placed her in her own category, apart from “boys” and “girls,” while calling roll, and she was forced off the basketball team on which she’d been a star player. When she tells the camera that she’s taken to cutting her own flesh and tried to kill herself three times, it’s awful, but tragically unsurprising.
Bully—which played festivals as The Bully Project before Harvey Weinstein opted to muscle the title away from a perfectly fine Larry Clark film—joins a slew of training programs, public-awareness campaigns, and newsmagazine specials in an attempt to spread the message that bullying is a serious issue. According to the film’s website, “13 million kids will be bullied in the U.S. this year,” although the source of that figure as well as its meaning are left unexplained. And that, unfortunately, is where Bully—the film, if not the project—fails to get the job done.
Hirsch opts for an anecdotal approach, following a handful of stories and trusting them to illuminate a larger problem. But in an attempt to sound the alarm, activists have turned “bullying” into a term so nebulous and overarching that it risks losing all meaning. The movie adeptly roils emotions, but it doesn’t knit its disparate stories into a coherent whole. It makes sense as part of a larger project—“Get upset, then visit our website”—but is incomplete on its own.
In an attempt to present its subjects in the most positive and unquestionable light, Bully omits or glosses over relevant details, eliding, for example, the fact that Tyler Long and Alex were both diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, apparently fearing that a mere mention might validate the contention that they were simply “weird.” The case of 14-year-old Ja’Meya, who was incarcerated after drawing a gun on her tormentors, as well as everyone else on her school bus, is presented with such circumspection that it’s rendered almost incomprehensible; her actions are explained in a few vague sentences that hardly measure up to the severity of her crime. Calling some of what happened to Kelby bullying, by contrast, actually understates the case. She describes an incident in which she stepped in front of a minivan filled with classmates who’d been verbally assaulting her, intending to confront them, and they instead stepped on the gas, slamming her into the windshield. That’s not bullying, that’s attempted murder.
The parents of Tyler Long and Ty Field-Smalley have taken up the anti-bullying cause in the wake of their sons’ deaths. Field-Smalley’s father, Kirk Smalley, a small-town farmer, takes his first fumbling steps onto the Internet to join the fight; Long’s mother, Tina, answers emails a few feet from the closet where her son hung himself. The parents speak eloquently about the “boys will be boys” attitude that frustrated their attempts to get the boys’ schools to take action. Long’s parents organize a town-hall meeting on the subject five weeks after his death; none of the school’s employees attend, though possibly because of the Longs’ lawsuit against the school, rather than cowardice.
The sense of helpless despair feeds on itself: Children who ask for help and get none are less likely to ask again. Alex’s mother, who struggles to get her son to open up to her, asks him how the abuse makes him feel. His response is heartbreaking and chilling: “I’m starting to think I don’t feel anything anymore.” Alex’s mother asks him why he continues to hang around kids who treat him badly; he says, in essence, “If they’re not my friends, who is?” There’s a pathology at work on both sides, a feedback loop in which negative attention is preferable to none at all. Heretical as it might seem, what Bully truly lacks is the bully’s point of view.
Hirsch skirts the issue of why bullies pick on others, but the simple answer is because they can, and in some cases, because they’ve been bullied themselves. We don’t know much about the boy who attacks Alex, but he’s clearly overweight, and it’s not hard to imagine him being picked on by his own classmates and taking out his aggression on a younger child. That doesn’t excuse his behavior, but it does help to explain it. The uniquely human quality of malice aside, the struggle for dominance is a constant in nature, where atypical — what Bully would call “different” — offspring are often shunned or abandoned. It takes vigilance to keep those instincts in check, a safety net our parsimonious society seems increasingly unwilling to finance.
As Alex’s mother pleads in vain for the school to take Alex’s troubles seriously, she recalls taking the bus to school as a child, when if children so much as got out of their seats, the driver would pull over until order was restored. The driver glimpsed in the rearview mirror of Alex’s bus barely seems old enough to be out of high school herself, and her daily route likely doesn’t have room for unscheduled stops. The evidence of increased bullying in schools is ambiguous, but with the rise of cyberbullying, physical superiority and popularity are no longer prerequisites for grinding someone else down, which makes understanding bullying as essential as stigmatizing it. We are all bullies now.