Last month, the Weinstein Company fought a very public battle with the MPAA over their film, Bully. The documentary, filmed by director Lee Hirsch, received an R rating from the MPAA, meaning no child under 17 would be allowed to see it in theaters on his or her own. The problem is, the film was aimed directly at middle and high school kids who are the victims of bullies. How could Bully be expected to make a difference when its key demographic was restricted from seeing it? More important, does Bully even do enough to make a difference?
When I saw Bully in mid-March, it was the original cut that received an R rating. Since then, a few F-bombs have been removed in order to obtain a PG-13 and allow for the intended audience to see the film. So, what will young children find when they watch Bully? They will find strength in knowing that they are not alone and that kids everywhere are bullied every day. They will find courage to go back to school the next day, even though it may mean another day of crying. But one thing they will not find is answers.
Hirsch goes to great lengths to tell the stories of several bullied kids across the U.S. The most powerful story we are shown belongs to a young boy named Alex, whom Hirsch follows to school and actually records being bullied. The scenes of Alex being called vulgar names and physically attacked are shocking, and many children will identify with him. But there is never a concluding message of Alex’s story that implies that things will get better. The encompassing moral of the entire film is perseverance through inner strength, but that doesn’t paint a hopeful picture for society as a whole. The main idea I walked away from Bully with was that some people are just inherently cruel, and you’ve just got to survive long enough to get away from them.
What could Hirsch have done to offer some hope to the worried masses? Perhaps instead of following the families of six bullied kids, he could have followed at least one bully. What Hirsch did by following the victims was simply a case of identifying the problem, and it’s one that we all already knew existed. The real necessity here would be to find the solution to the problem, or at least identify the cause. If Hirsch followed just one bully around school, and perhaps even got permission to film him at home, we could have gained serious insight into why bullies behave as they do. Is it an extension of being treated poorly at home? Is it peer pressure? We can’t know, because the thought was never explored.
One thing I will give Hirsch credit for is displaying how helpless school officials are on the matter of bullying. The most pathetic person we observe is the vice principal of Alex’s school, a woman who is genuinely oblivious to how useless her efforts are. At one point, she pulls two boys aside because they have gotten into a bit of a scrap. One boy was bullying the other, calling him names and hitting him. The vice principal tells the boys to shake hands, and the bully extends his while the victim refuses. The scene continues with the VP dismissing the bully and keeping the victim behind so that she can express how disappointed she is with him for not accepting the handshake. This is just one of several scenes where her ineffectiveness borders on stupidity.
Bully also did excellent work pointing out the flaws of the MPAA system, which has been a joke for years. Violence involving guns and explosions is innocent enough to garner a PG-13 (as long as blood is minimal), but so help you if your film has the F-word in it twice. It’s impossible to take a system seriously when The King’s Speech received the exact same rating as Hostel. The Weinsteins were originally going to release Bully unrated to fight the MPAA but eventually buckled for the PG-13 rating. It’s a shame they did this, because if they were able to successfully release a film as unrated, it could have meant the beginning of the end for the outdated and useless system.
Despite the fact that Bully could have been much greater and had much more of an impact, I still believe there is no harm in taking your child to see it. If you are concerned about the F-bombs in the film, I can assure you that your child has heard it all before, as many middle schoolers have mouths like sailors nowadays. If you feel your son or daughter is being bullied, they need to know that they are not alone and most important, that they can talk to you about it.