film response: Bully

Just the way it is

Directed by Lee Hirsch
USA, 2011, 1h 38min

I’m less optimistic about the proposed “army” against bullying than the filmmakers and the parents in this documentary are. The military metaphor doesn’t sit well with me for one thing. That doesn’t mean they’re not right to struggle regardless. I just feel that policy changes aren’t going to gain much advantage over, not only systemic problems, but entrenched ideological and cultural discourses, and maybe even biological imperatives, against which humans seem able to do very little.

But no one is condescended to here and the lives and opinions of the kids are respected. We don’t hear much from the bullies, unfortunately, other than the harrowing and eye-opening scene in which one boy is strangled, punched and has his head banged against the seat in front of him while the cameras roll and the other kids and the bus driver act like nothing out of the ordinary is happening. That’s my point, I guess. Nothing is out of the ordinary about what’s depicted in that scene, except that it got captured and edited into a documentary, and now more than just bullies and their enablers are witnesses to it.

Everything that happened to me on that bus happened every day, if not worse. – Alex Libby

But not even that is as awful as hearing one of the members of the school’s administration try to get a bullied kid to admit that he was part of the problem. (That sentiment was echoed a couple times, usually by some parent.) He was having none of it, however, and made that woman look stupid and insensitive while at the same time, perfectly sane. One way to read against the grain of the larger, activist intent of this film is to recognize bullying as consonant with adult systems and hierarchies which the kids are going to have to get used to sooner or later. She really is just doing her job. What I mean by pointing this out is that: This isn’t just a school discipline problem; it’s a cultural problem.

Later, she ineffectually and rather soullessly attempts to placate the parents of the boy who got strangled, by using diversionary rhetoric and bland, generic promises and then outright lying. That made me sick. She should be fired but I have my doubts that anyone at the school could even detect anything wrong with her words and behavior. She’s preparing the students for their lives to come, after all.

But one young, articulate gay woman gave me reason to hope, not only for her own intelligent defiance but in the way she seemed to inspire those around her, reinforcing their friendships.

Go, Kelby, change the world.

Postscript: I’m a bit disturbed by some of the reviews of The Bully Project on Letterboxd, where this unliked note first appeared.

Here’s an interesting excerpt from one of those:

I get that these kids are being bullied for no real reason besides their being different, but the filmmakers never bothered to give me a reason to care for them other than the fact I should be sympathetic towards them because they’re being bullied.

In other words, in order to feel moral outrage for their being bullied, they must be presented as sympathetic and likable characters, as in a Hollywood teenage drama? That’s as eye-opening as the words coming out of the mouths of the school administration officials and just as damning.

Review Date
Reviewed Item
The Bully Project
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