By Simon Abrams and R. Kurt Osenlund | Press Play April 11, 2012 at 11:38AM
The recent documentary release Bully is an up-close look at 5 families of children who have been the victims of bullying. The film attempts to examine the problem from several different sides. The film has been the subject of much interest and debate since it came out; here, writers Simon Abrams and R. Kurt Osenlund offer their own takes.
How did this happen, Kurt? When Bully came out, all anybody could talk about was the ratings controversy that its distributors drummed up for publicity's sake. Somewhere, Kroger Babb and Dave Friedman are smiling down on Bob and Harvey for having sold their film's steak based on its sizzle and not its substance.
Then again, as we have both written, there isn’t much meat on Bully's bones, is there? Director Lee Hirsch and co-writer Cynthia Lowen's 2012 documentary is so myopic that its scope only leaves room for a very narrow representation of bullying in heartland America. The film features problematic latent assumptions about bullying and how it should be handled in real life that I strongly dislike.
For instance, one parent insists, "we're nobody" when he complains that changes haven't been made in his kid's school system strictly because of political reasons. I understand what this father means to say: parents and kids are being ignored because American schools are beholden to powerful and apathetic people of influence. But this footage speaks to bigger concerns in Bully's vision of victimization. Firstly, the way that Hirsch lets this man babble suggests that the filmmakers find more than just pent-up frustration in his ranting. Hirsch and Lowen suggest that the man is right for thinking that the school system is corrupt. You sat next to me at the Bully press screening I attended when some moviegoers were doing everything short of booing and hissing at footage of one school's disinterested vice principal. Hirsch's message couldn't be clearer: school administrators are to blame because they're hypocrites and are quick to turn a blind eye.
Another thing I found frustrating about the aforementioned father's insistence that he's "nobody" was how his rap speaks to the film's emphasis on Middle American kids and parents. I wouldn't be surprised if Hirsch had deliberately steered clear of urban schools. It's easier to pull your audience's heartstrings when you flatter them by focusing on “real” salt-of-the-Earth types. They're honest, simple people, Kurt, don't you see? They don't have no book-learning or influence to fall back on. They're nobody!
There are so many loaded assumptions about bullying and blame in Bully that I really had a hard time narrowing down to one emblematic example. It's especially disappointing to see that neither bullies nor any parents of bullies are given a chance to speak. Presumably, there weren't many that wanted to talk, but again, that's not on the screen. And that's where I think you and I find ourselves agreeing: what this movie puts on screen and how it puts it there are two different things. The film's unearned, faux-heart-warming message is just so solipsistic that I want to buy Philadelphia Weekly critic Sean Burns a beer for tweeting that he wanted to stuff Bully into a locker and steal its lunch money.
R. Kurt Osenlund:
Simon, your last point about Sean Burns's tweet is perfect, because it highlights how this movie isn't capable of changing any bullies' minds, and it also scoffs at the notion that we critics who hated the film are, naturally, the real bullies. I am sick to death of so many subpar documentary films coming down the pike, and accruing praise simply because the director wields a camera and a noble cause—as if the discussion the film starts will account for the film's own shortcomings. Though I haven't seen Tom Sadyac's I Am, I think it's safe to say Bully is the worst offender of this type, since, in addition to actual filmmaking that isn't about to turn many heads, it continually sets up a conversation it isn't equipped to have.
Whether ballooned by the media or not, bullying is a hot-button issue right now, and I, for one, at least expected this film to better address what headlines would call “a national epidemic.” But, as you stated, Hirsch is only interested in a convenient, meat-and-potatoes cross-section, where families are more than ready to open their doors, hearts, and mouths for a flashy film crew that rolls into town. It's just one example of the many shortcuts Hirsch takes, others being the oft-discussed issue of a lack of bully presence, and the decision to point the finger at an oppressive administration, embodied by a “horrifying” assistant principal who, unless I missed something in my press notes, has got to be acting for the camera.
I know I'm already inviting charges of cynicism, but this movie elicits it relentlessly, and I'm disheartened that so many major reviewers chose to ignore their better judgments' whispers of “bullshit.” Without a frame witnessed, the film already has that maddening Weinstein PR push, which, as you said, aims to squeeze every last ticket sale out of a who-cares controversy that roped in celebrities and villain-ized the MPAA (cuz, y'know, they're just as insensitively bureaucratic as the damned school systems).
Just in case I haven't offended anyone enough, I'll say that I did not find this film's events, as presented, particularly troubling. I sympathized (even empathized) with young Alex, and I thought the (unexplored) implications of Ja'Meya's school-bus vengeance incident were provocative. But virtually every scene, save a heated town hall meeting, feels rife with the strain of manufactured drama, and without a single visible conflict, the storyline with out lesbian Kelby, who's surrounded by supportive family and friends, seems downright idyllic. Hirsch's poor instincts for meaningful footage and subject matter are compounded by his insensitive shots, which at many points begets a feeling of outright exploitation. I know one shot contained not one, not two, but three redneck-y instances of an eight-point buck—one inked on a man's arm, one emblazoned on his shirt, and one physically mounted to the wall. And perhaps you, Simon, can tell me what the director's intention was in shooting poor Alex walking around the playground with wing sauce smeared all over his face.
Well, Kurt, I don't know if I'd go so far as to say that Hirsch and co. were ever really trying to change bullies' minds. I think Bully, like so many other activist docs, is very self-congratulatory. It’s representative of a subgenre of documentary filmmaking that I think recently found very good expression in The Art of the Steal. Steal’s narrative is so dense and well-researched that I can easily forgive it for its filmmakers' biases and the lapses in argumentative logic that those biases create. Some other superior examples of inherently problematic but effective muckraking docs include Inside Job or almost any of Joe Berlinger's documentaries. But I admit, I’m usually wary of how people are presented in such films as being emblematic of a cause or more generally how their lives are re-packaged into narratives.
Bully is as odious as it is both because its creators are very myopic but also because what they do show us feels, as you wrote, manufactured. It's the same reason why Comic Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope, Morgan Spurlock's new doc about the San Diego Comic Con, is so irritating. Spurlock took real-life people and turned them into generic narrative mosaic tiles that, when put together, give you an equally unimpressive cumulative effect. He makes the courtship of two young nerds the counterpoint to the failure of an aspiring bartender/hopeful comic book artist, which in turn is the counterpoint for a successful comic book artist's story of finding work at the convention. I don't mind that these characters are performing for the camera after a point. What I mind is how Spurlock makes these people’s stories trite and uninteresting.
Similarly, I'm frustrated by the way that Hirsch and Lowen don't acknowledge that Ja'Maya, a bullied student that took a gun to school and almost was sent to jail for a very long time, essentially went from being a victim to a bully. The continuation of the vicious cycle of victimization and bullying is hinted at when the Evil vice principal that we've both already alluded to reprimands a student by saying that he shouldn't stoop to the level of his bullies. If he does, then this kid becomes just as bad as his bullies. Why isn't Ja'Maya held to similar standards? I think Hirsch and Lowen's pseudo-fly on the wall approach, which is presumably where the wing sauce scene you mentioned comes from, is craven, in that sense. If they’re trying to make an activist doc, one where the cause is presumably supported by human examples, being a fly on the wall is coy at best and at worst is, as it is here, crassly manipulative.
I remember you bringing up that same point about Ja'Maya after our screening, Simon, and I think it's a very interesting one. I don't know how well portraying the girl as yet another predator would have served this film's purposes (that seems like material for a far more broad and objective look at bullying phenomena), but that it's not even addressed is indeed more evidence of Hirsch's tendency to glaze over elements so he can bag half-realized stories. Which I think speaks to your point about the lack of opposition being a problem. I, too, saw The Art of the Steal, and was very impressed with the sheer breadth of its detective-like story, however clearly biased it was. The difference is, Don Argott tried like hell to get his film's very specific villains to participate, and virtually all of them refused. So he made the best movie he could with his mountain of material, and risked letting the argument skew more sharply toward his own politics. Hirsch's villains, in general, aren't exactly in short supply. I don't think it would have killed him to find a creative way to incorporate the participation of some sort of bully, if only to introduce an antagonist's mentality and reach toward understanding.
Perhaps changing bullies' minds was not part of Hirsch and company's objective. But in making a film about this topic, in this time, I damn sure think it should have been part of it. I don't know how realistic it is to think that a documentary film is going to affect the daily decisions of an eighth-grade jerk, but I believe it's imperative to at least strive for that result. This movie's platitudes, manipulation, lack of focus, and lack of follow-through weaken its impact and mar its opportunity to actually make some kind of difference. Sean Burns was cracking a joke, but it's not a good sign that this movie could actually fire bullies up instead of incite them to change.
I certainly have deep sympathy for the families in the film who lost their children. But right from the opening scene, with shattered parents David and Tina Long, I felt even more sorry for other families who've suffered the same tragedy, and no doubt turned to this film for a reflection of themselves. What Hirsch shows instead is one clichéd and cloyingly staged scene after another—real-life family turmoil that reeks of directorial coaching. It all boils down to the birthing of a grassroots anti-bullying movement, which, if the director had waited for it to develop, would actually warrant worthwhile documentary coverage. But, no—Hirsch uses it as a commercialistic coda, complete with a hashtag and a URL that'll make Twitter followers out of every tear-eyed viewer. And that, unfortunately, is the message I was basically left with: that Bully, like Harvey Weinstein's press releases, is an advertisement.
Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.
R. Kurt Osenlund is the Managing Editor of Slant Magazine's The House Next Door, as well as a film critic & contributor for Slant, South Philly Review, Film Experience, Cineaste, Fandor, ICON, and many other publications.