Review: 'Bully' Shifts Blame & Pities The Victims Without Offering Real Solutions To The Problem Of Bullying

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by Simon Abrams
March 28, 2012 3:38 PM
13 Comments
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At one point in "Bully," a new documentary about the complex problem of bullying in American high schools, a mother of a bullied high schooler confesses that she feels like both she and her husband have failed their son Alex. He is constantly picked on when he rides the bus to school every morning. His mother briefly blames herself, saying that she doesn't feel like a good parent, before shifting the blame to her husband, an alpha male that we've previously seen encouraging Alex to confront his problem so that his younger sister won't have to suffer for his silence.

That tactic of shifting blame rather than openly discussing the root causes of bullying is typical of co-directors Lee Hirsch and Alicia Dwyer's crassly manipulative approach. "Bully" encourages viewers to wallow in the helplessness of the film's teenage victims and their parents.

To be clear: I don’t think "Bully" is offensively simplistic as it is because subjects like Alex are insincere, but rather because they are poorly represented. Nobody can question that Alex has been traumatized after receiving death threats and being sat on and stabbed with pencils on his morning school bus. Rather, the flaw in "Bully" is that every child that has been affected by bullying is represented simply as an innocent victim.

Even Ja'maya, a star basketball player that brings her mother's gun to school with her one day, is celebrated because she's able to come home after a few months' stay in a psychiatric facility. The fact that Ja'maya perpetuated the cycle of violence that led her to be bullied in the first place is apparently irrelevant. Tears and outrage speak loudest in "Bully," making it very easy to ignore the fact that Ja'maya is part of the problem, too. Hirsch and Dwyer tellingly begin "Bully" by having the father of Tyler, a teen that committed suicide, directly address the camera and talk about the loss of his son. However, he doesn't talk about what he did or did not do while Tyler was alive but instead, he, like several other parents and concerned community members in "Bully," complain about negligent school administrators, teachers and bus drivers for doing nothing to stop bullying while it's happening.

The myth of universal non-involvement on the part of school administrators is briefly dispelled in one scene where the vice principal at Alex's school tells him that she did talk to the boys that mercilessly harassed him on the bus. But Alex responds that the boys only stopped one kind of bullying but continued to hurt him in different ways. The scene ends with that petulant rebuke, encouraging viewers to cluck our tongues at the ineffectual and inattentive vice principal.

But while the buck is forcefully passed to Alex's vice principal, nobody really pursues his mother, who tries and fails to elicit a response from her son when she asks him point blank if anything happened to him at school. Alex's silence speaks for itself apparently, making it very easy for Hirsch and Dwyer to fill in the blanks with scenes of Alex eating lunch alone, good-naturedly comparing girls to candy bars or walking around the schoolyard with barbecue sauce smeared around his mouth. He is innocent and needs to be defended. But nobody in "Bully" can do that or knows how. So school officials are conveniently turned into scapegoats and cherubic Alex becomes the poster child for voiceless teenaged victims everywhere.

There are other teenagers featured in "Bully" that speak of similarly humiliating experiences. But the message they send about bullying is no less incoherent or shrill. For example, Kelby is a gay teenager that has just come out of the closet to her parents, fundamentalists that now embrace their daughter for who she is. Kelby is a tough kid, joking about how uncool she is for being targeted by a mini-van driven by bigots that intentionally hit her and ran. But when Kelby's father tells us what he has done to protect his daughter from being picked on or hurt, it's apparent that he's not effecting much of a change. Kelby's dad first tells us that he didn't want to remove Kelby from school because she insisted that it would only encourage the bullies. This only sounds like a noble sentiment; after all, it's implied that Ja'maya thought the same thing before she was pushed far enough to bring a gun to school.

What's worse is the way Kelby's story ends, not with an affirmation of her clique of friends who accept her, but with her dad boasting about how he pulled his daughter out of class and is now home-schooling her. Kelby acknowledges that this is a hasty stopgap solution, saying that being accepted will take time. But the announcement of Kelby's home-schooling is, nonetheless, the resolution to her journey.

So Kelby’s story doesn’t end with a sign that the most important thing for Kelby is that she's loved by friends and family that accept her. Instead, we get Kelby's dad telling us that they've essentially ostracized her further in order to help her. That kind of thinking makes Kelby a great martyr, on par even with the relatively friendless Alex. But it also reveals Hirsch and Dwyer's real priorities. Their victims cannot be empowered but rather pitied for their status as social pariahs. Difference is not a good thing in "Bully" but rather a frail quality and a mark of outcasts everywhere. The good intentions of everyone involved in making "Bully" don't matter when the underlying logic to their film is so latently disparaging. [D]

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13 Comments

  • Sean McDonald | March 1, 2013 12:02 AMReply

    As someone who was bullied as a teen you cannot grasp how angry this movie review has made me. I was bullied for my sexual orientation growing up before I had even accepted myself as a gay male. I was innocent and no adults really stood up to protect me, just like Alex and the other kids in this movie. The bullying I endured went on so long I accepted it as normal just like Alex. The point to this documentary is to get adults and other students to do something when they see bullying happen, instead of turning a blind eye. This movie is not about pity, it is about motivating people to do something. It was meant to piss you off and tell the bullies you see to stop. If you missed that and decided it was just about pitying the victim, then you need to look in the mirror because in my opinion the bully is you.

  • Kat | March 29, 2012 10:27 AMReply

    Although I haven't yet seen the movie... (it comes out tomorrow) I do think that this movie soumds like it could be a tool used to open the lines of commnication for a very serious topic. Especially for the victims looking to find their voice. Maybe conversations in school or at home following the movie, will result in some kids finding support and safe environments to seek help. The above review offers an interesting perspective, but it brought me to question where are the parents of the bullies? I do not see them on any of any of the sites, and I am hoping to see them in the movie, but it doesn't sound like they were featured???? I think bullies who watch this movie, may see some of their actions differently, but unfortuately I can also see it becoming a joke to them. It's hard to offer solutions when so many parents of the bullies step up (only getting involed at that moment) to protect their child, not taking any responsibility, just trying to brush it off as growing pains or deny theiperfect angel could ever be involved. The biggest problem and a major reason we cannot make a dent in bullying is because the parents of the bullies will not or are incapable of stepping up and taking an active role in disciplining and re-educating their children on human decency, respect for self and others, and the sense of safe communitites. I am much more interested in hearing from those parents and even the bullies themselves when faced with a movie portraying the victims of bullying.

  • Simon Abrams | March 29, 2012 10:00 PM

    See, that's a damn good point. You don't hear from the parents of bullies. Heck, you don't hear from bullies either! Very frustrating.

  • hank | March 29, 2012 3:05 AMReply

    so is there some conspiracy going on here or something?

  • Simon Abrams | March 29, 2012 7:48 AM

    Ha! Nope, Hank, just a bad joke played on me, the writer of the above review.

    I saw that there were three comments on this piece and all three were positive and tweeted something to that effect. The next three comments (the negative ones) are jokey attempts by friends and strangers to balance out the internet's equilibrium.

  • Micheal Cohen | March 28, 2012 10:56 PMReply

    a great review. for me to poop on.

  • Simon's Mom Who Also Wrote The Three Previous Comments | March 28, 2012 10:44 PMReply

    This review offers a perspective that I haven't seen in other pieces about this movie. Excellent job.

  • Jay | March 29, 2012 2:33 AM

    Who the fuck is Simon?

  • Cde. | March 28, 2012 8:21 PMReply

    Very well articulated. Probably the best review I've ever seen on The Playlist.

  • Simon Abrams | March 29, 2012 10:00 PM

    Yo. Who the bleep are you?

  • Jordan | March 28, 2012 7:15 PMReply

    Very insightful take on this movie and the issue. Well done.

  • Edward Davis | March 28, 2012 6:20 PMReply

    Great review.

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