Outrage, devastation, an overwhelming sense of injustice—these are just a few of the feelings you’re likely to experience while watching Bully, the new documentary from filmmaker Lee Hirsch (read our interview with the director here). And you might want to bring a tissue or two. The poignant movie highlights one of the single-most terrible aspects of adolescence—bullying—and the lives and families of five kids who are heartbreakingly enduring it (or its aftermath).
It’s one thing to read about bullying in the media, where it’s gotten a lot of attention in the past couple of years. But it creates an entirely different ache to be a silent observer as 12-year-old Alex gets punched and poked and harassed on the bus he takes to his Sioux City, IA school. Or to hear the stories of isolation and shunning 16-year-old Kelby experienced in her small Oklahoma hometown after coming out as a lesbian. When she tells of a teacher taking attendance by saying, “boys…girls…Kelby,” you get a sense that the biggest disappointment this documentary uncovers is the epic way adults are failing these kids on a daily basis. Watching misguided school administrators unable or unwilling to help the students who need it most, and parents clearly uncertain of how to handle the situation, is just as disconcerting as the footage of bullying itself.
After a long and losing battle with the MPAA—who gave the film an R because of a few F-bombs, essentially preventing the kids who need to see it most from being able to watch it—the movie’s distributors released Bully without a rating. It’s a less-than-ideal circumstance, but one that will hopefully bring the film to as many people as possible.
Which reminds me of another emotion the movie invokes: hope. This film shows kids they are not alone when it comes to enduring this type of torture. It shows bullies the effects their behavior has on their targets. And it shows adults that with a little empathy and awareness, we can make a big difference.