Bully: Lee Hirsch’s Urgent Docu Calls for Action Now!

Lee Hirsch’s new documentary, “Bully,” a disturbing chronicle of a growing national problem, which often results in severe damages and even suicide, is a timely, relevant call to action.

The feature, originally titled “The Bully Project,” is controversial right now, not because of its subject matter—everybody agrees it’s important and significant—but because of the peculiar, inconsistent approach of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which has slapped the film with R rating, which means that the immediate target audience—children– will not be able to see the movie.

The rating, which is being contested by the Weinstein Company, was given due to the use of four-letter words. But then you see graphically violent films, such as the smash hit “The Hunger Games,” which has received PG.  Go figure.

“Bully” touches a personal and collective nerve: It’s hard to think of any child or adolescent who has not been bullied—or been a bully himself/herself (I have occupied both positions at different times in school).

The docu begins with an alarming statistic: Over 13 million American kids will be bullied this year, making it the most common form of violence experienced by youngsters.  But not to worry: There are no graphs or stats or even commentary–the evidence offered is immediate and direct.

As directed by Lee Hirsch, “Bully” puts faces to the psych-social dynamics, bringing human scale to this startling statistic, by offering an intimate, upsetting view of how bullying has defined and touched the lives of five kids and their families.

Shot over the course of the 2009-2010 school year, “Bully” reveals a persistent problem that goes beyond racial, ethnic, sexual, and socio-economic statuses.  I recently attended a screening presented by Meryl Streep, in which she related her victimization in school, climbing up trees with bleeding feet.

The film documents the responses of teachers and administrators to aggressive behaviors, which defy the mythic notion of “kids will be kids.” In doing so, it captures a growing movement among parents and youths to change how bullying is handled in schools, in communities, and in our society and culture at large.

The docu takes a direct, case-study strategy. For 12-year-old Alex of Sioux City, Iowa, the slurs, curses and threats begin before he boards the school bus. Just starting middle school and wanting more than anything to fit in, Alex assures his parents that the kids who taunt him are only “messing with him.” At his seventh grade, the bullying only escalates.

Then there is Kelby, 16, who, after coming out as lesbian, has been treated as pariah in her small town of Tuttle, Oklahoma. The former all-star athlete has faced hatred from classmates, and alarmingly, also by teachers. Thus, she has been forced to leave sports teams by attacks. Refusing her parents’ offers to leave Tuttle, the teenager is bolstered by her adoring girlfriend and some friends, resolving to stay in town–and fight.

In Yazoo County, Mississippi, 14-year-old Ja’Meya is taking an hour-long bus ride between home and school. On September 1st, the otherwise quiet girl brandished a loaded handgun taken from her mother’s closet to scare off her tormentors. Incarcerated in juvenile detention facility and charged with multiple felony counts, Ja’Meya is now awaiting the outcome of her case.

In October 2009, Tyler Long, 17, of Murray County, Georgia, hanged himself after years of abuse by classmates and indifference from school officials. His mourning parents, David and Tina Long, rightly demand accountability from a school that had disappointed and failed him.  Tyler’s death has sparked a war in a community forced to face its  demons.

Another set of parents, Kirk and Laura Smalley, following the bullying-related suicide of their son Ty, age 11, are determined to prevent other children from his tragic fate. As schools prepare for a new academic year, Kirk launches an anti-bullying organization, Stand for the Silent, coordinating a series of vigils that underscore the unacceptable dimensions of the bullying crisis.

The plea in “Bully” is earnest, relevant, and touching, and I wish the documentary were better structurally and artistically—sections of it are poorly edited and repetitive.

But those are minor faults in a character-driven feature, which is composed of heartfelt stories, each representing a different facet of America’s alarmingly and shockingly growing bullying crisis.

In its best moments, “Bully” serves as an effective weapon, calling for immediate change in prevalent attitudes, values and action.