Bully, the documentary exploring the problems of bullied kids in U.S. schools, has been shown around the country since the middle of last year, and the viewers are frequently overwhelmed by the stories told on the screen. The wider release of the movie was marred by a dispute between the Motion Picture Association of America and the executive producer and head of The Weinstein Company, Harvey Weinstein. When, in late March, the movie was given an R-rating which would have precluded it from being shown in schools and would have required children under 17 years of age to be accompanied by an adult when seeing it in the theater, the filmmakers chose to defy the MPAA, and release the movie unrated. Subsequently, one of the largest movie chains in the country, AMC, announced that it will bend its usual policy regarding unrated releases and screen the film. It will also allow children with permission slips signed by their parents to see the documentary unaccompanied. The ratings decision was later reversed, and the film was released with the PG-13 rating.
And the audiences are showing up in droves, and while some love the film and some hate it, no one comes out of the theater unaffected by what they’ve seen. To document audience reaction, the film’s director Lee Hirsch asked Facing History and Ourselves to create a YouTube channel “Be the Difference: Guide to ‘Bully’” which shows a video of interviews with audience members about their reactions to the movie. In addition, channel offers parents and kids resources to fight bullying in their schools and as well as help adults answer any questions that kids might have after a screening.
Reviews for Bully have been almost overwhelmingly positive, with most critics saying that although the film isn’t perfect, it tells true, effective and incredibly moving stories of five kids, their families and their experience with being bullied. In the course of the film, the authority figures’ seemingly ineffectual way of dealing with the problem comes in for some criticism, and the growth of school bullying from a “kids will be kids” phenomenon to what the filmmakers call a “nationwide epidemic” also gets some attention. But the camera mainly stays on the subjects as they try to navigate their school days without breaking apart.
Gary Thompson, reviewing the film for the Philadelphia Daily News says that some of the more effecting scenes were interviews of the families whose bullied children committed suicide after school officials refused to intervene even after repeated entreaties.
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).
The movie didn’t win over everyone who’d seen it. Cedric Wood of the Texas Monitor gave the film only 2.5 stars, which was .5 stars fewer than he gave The Three Stooges — which he reviewed in the same article. Kansas.com’s Landon McDonald criticized it for its too-narrow regional focus, making it seem like the problem is specific only to the parts of the country that comprises the Bible Belt.
This decision which has already led to predictable accusations of coastal elitism and the concealment of thornier psychological implications regarding the universal cruelty of children. The phenomenon of cyber-bullying, an often-anonymous brand of harassment that led to a number of the suicides the film mentions, is barely touched on.