‘Bully’ movie review: Film finds weak officials, helpless parents & students

THE ANTI-BULLYING documentary “Bully” is finally here, widely hailed as a movie that every teen should see.

And with the now-official PG-13 rating, they can.

Should they?

I thought every teen should see “21 Jump Street,” so I’ll recuse myself.

But “Bully” is undeniably effective in its simple, straightforward mission — director Lee Hirsch documents the residue of bullying on five middle/high school victims and their families. The aim is to elicit in bullies (or all who might consider bullying) empathy for the targets of their abuse.

And what’s persuasive here isn’t the obscene language or the physical violence that initially earned the movie its restricted status. What gives “Bully” its substance and power are the rich, detailed portraits of life at home for the victims — vulnerable, ostracized students who want to fit in but can’t, desperate parents who can’t console their children or get help from schools.

If “Bully” functions as a “Scared Straight” for children, it’s even more harrowing for parents, who know they’re sending their kids into a kiddie ThunderDome, and get no help from in-denial administrators. On two occasions, we meet the parents of children who killed themselves when repeated consultations with school officials yielded feeble, defensive bureaucratic response.

Hirsch spares us little in documenting these deaths. A mother shows us the closet where her son hanged himself. We attend the funeral of another child and hear the testimony of the boy’s best friend, who provides a kid’s eye view of the sudden, vehement social vacuum that formed around the dead boy (just 11).

After taking stock of the survivors’ bewildered anguish, we understand and applaud the family that takes their isolated gay daughter out of the school and the community that condoned her ongoing mistreatment. She’s the victim you worry about least — when a group of thugs tries to run her over with a vehicle, she complains that it was a minivan, because she wanted to at least get hit by something cool. Anyone who can crack a joke like that is a survivor.

It’s one of the few lighthearted moments in “Bully,” a movie that evokes the grief, anger, and frustration of its subjects, with a cinematic flair unusual for documentaries. Some of the shots are stunning — worthy of A-list Hollywood drama. There are even moments when you could accuse the movie of being slick, especially when Hirsch adds music to heighten the emotion — an added element “Bully” surely does not need.

Like a modern doc, it has an undercurrent of advocacy, but it’s restrained. Hirsch does not make himself a character in the piece. He’s not on camera like Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock, we don’t hear his voice off-camera like Errol Morris, and he doesn’t throw a ton of charts and graphs at us, like “Waiting for ‘Superman.’ ”

That’s a bit of a problem. There is very little context and information here. We hear that bullying is epidemic, but what are the numbers? And if it is, what’s to be done? Trusting the schools seems out of the question. Hirsch (with a small sampling) paints a bleak picture of school administrators and counselors. Their butt-covering, mealymouthed bumbling would be comic if the consequences were not so tragic. (When a child complains of being beaten, a counselor asks him to consider how that allegation makes the bully feel.)

“Bully” concludes with an entreaty to encourage children to police themselves, but asking preadolescents to suddenly acquire the superego of the Dalai Lama seems a bit far-fetched to me. Unless the adults who are supposed to run these schools — in the halls, at the PTA — assert themselves, I’d say more funerals are on the way.

Contact movie critic Gary Thompson at 215-854-5992 or thompsg@phillynews.com. Read his blog, “Keep It Reel,” atphilly.com/keepitreel.


Directed by Lee Hirsch. Distributed by The Weinstein Co..

Running time: 1 hours, 34 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (for intense thematic material, disturbing content, and some strong language -all involving kids).