The issue of bullying is everywhere in schools these days. My daughter’s grade school sponsors anti-bullying workshops and plays, keeps an “incident log” in the office, and plasters its halls with hortatory slogans, all indicating a concerted attempt to lower the threshold of tolerance for peer intimidation.

Bully should be seen as part of that effort—and it should be seen. Lee Hirsch’s documentary portrays the tribulations of victimhood with agonized attention to the last stinging detail.

For generations the schoolyard has been a juvenile frontier where outlaws run wild, rough justice is handed out by the mob, and the sheriff is either absent or ineffectual, operating under the disabling mantra that “kids will be kids.” It’s a tricky question: What level of adverse interaction is simply, even necessarily, part of growing up? Does name-calling constitute bullying? What about a punch on the arm? For schools, the challenge is partly definitional and, inevitably, bureaucratic, a vexing policy question. For a parent—not to mention a child—it is far less abstract. How much nastiness should be allowed? The take in Bully is clear: very little indeed.

Hirsch did his research with a high-definition Canon camera so compact (6 x 4 x 3 inches) that his subjects seemed to forget they were being filmed. The movie he sculpted from a year’s worth of footage follows the families of five children made miserable by bullies. So miserable, in fact, that two are gone—a pair of boys, one in Oklahoma and the other in Georgia, both named Tyler, who took their own lives after suffering years of abuse at school; their stories are told by grieving parents. Rounding out the cast are Ja’Meya, a fourteen-year-old girl arrested for brandishing a pistol at tormentors on the school bus; sixteen-year-old Kelby, whose decision to reveal her lesbianism brings ostracism to her family in their Oklahoma town; and Alex, a fourteen-year-old boy in Sioux City, Iowa, whose daily torments form the core of Bully’s story. 

Alex is a sweet-souled child, but frail and funny-looking, with wide-set eyes and a large-lipped mouth that perpetually hangs open. “They call me Fish Face,” he says, “but it doesn’t really bother me.” On the bus, tougher boys treat him as a plaything, available not only to be teased, but to be punched, choked, prodded, and, above all, threatened and humiliated. One typical morning, as the middle school comes into view through the bus window, the boy next to Alex launches a monologue of unspeakable violence, reciting exactly what he intends to do to him with a knife and a broomstick—as matter-of-factly as if recapping last night’s baseball game.

That Alex is passively complicit in his own humiliations, clearly preferring being abused to being ignored, only accentuates the heartbreak. This film makes clear that the values underlying bullying are pervasive—indeed, they pervade the victim’s own family. “You have to take care of things,” Alex’s father scolds him. “Nobody respects a punching bag.” His younger sister complains to him that she’s being picked on because he’s her brother. “Why?” Alex asks. “That doesn’t make sense.” His sister shrugs. “They think you’re creepy,” she says, her smile conveying all too clearly that he is a pariah in her eyes.

Eventually the filmmakers, worried about Alex’s safety, show some of the bus video to his parents. His mother is shocked and hurt. “Don’t you know that these boys are not your friends?” she asks Alex, tearfully. “Your only relation to them is that they beat up on you. Do you understand that?” Alex frowns. “But if they aren’t my friends, then what friends do I have?”

Bully focuses outrage on school administrators who either downplay the problem or give smiling, upbeat assurances—and then do nothing, or make matters worse. In one infuriating scene we watch a vice principal engineer a handshake between two quarreling boys. One boy refuses to shake, and she lays into him with a withering criticism. Only then do we learn that he has long been bullied by the other boy, cruelly and relentlessly. But the vice principal ignores the victim’s protestation and continues to hammer him for subverting her diplomacy. “Don’t you see that by not shaking his hand, you’re just like him?” she upbraids him. “You mean, like someone who pushes you into a wall?” the boy says desperately. “Who threatens to stab you and kill you?”

Such suffocating injustice is hard to watch—and I confess to spending stretches of this movie in tears. You want to tell these kids, “You think this will last forever, but it won’t. Just get through adolescence!” But some don’t get through. Bully’s opening sequence interviews the father of Tyler Long, one of the two boys who committed suicide. As we watch family videos of a smiling little boy cavorting in the yard, the father explains that his son entered middle school as something of a loner, unathletic and gentle. He sighs deeply. “I knew he would be victimized at some point.”

That certainty is heartrending. And while two of the victims in Bully are girls, it is hard not to come away with the impression that the code of cruelty bullies follow arises fundamentally from the violent, constricting ideology of American maleness. Hirsch focuses on rural working communities, and the fathers he interviews are truck-driving, baseball-cap-wearing, churchgoing, ex-military guys. It is profoundly moving to see these men in the deep American grain, emotionally destroyed by the loss of their sons, rouse themselves to an unaccustomed activism that points the way back from despair. “I will fight bullying forever,” says the father of Ty Smalley, “because my son will be eleven years old forever.”

If I have a criticism, it’s that Hirsch never gets us anywhere near the minds, hearts, and intentions of a bully. Despite its title, Bully is entirely victim-centric and does nothing to illuminate the kids on the other side of these hurtful transactions. I would also have liked more context and commentary. Are we living in a time and place particularly conducive to bullying? Or are we simply becoming less benighted—catching up with a set of moral recognitions that (as with the clerical abuse scandal) we can only wish we had grasped long ago?

Controversy has followed the film, its rating, and the question of whether it should be shown to kids. This leaves me incredulous. Bully’s mutedly hopeful ending, covering the launch of an anti-bullying initiative, complete with colorful balloons being loosed into the sky (a visual nod to that great anti-bullying classic The Red Balloon), rests on the hopeful premise that kids can be retrained—taught to step in and to stand up for the vulnerable among them. Such a hope rests on getting through to kids and informing their hearts and minds. Surely a crucial tool is to have every one of them watch this anguished and lacerating film.

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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Published in the 2012-06-01 issue: View Contents
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