Bully, a documentary by director Lee Hirsch, is set exclusively in rural America — in Georgia, Iowa, Texas, Mississippi and Oklahoma, specifically. Young teenagers are shown playing outside, doing what you'd think young teenagers haven't done for at least 100 years: skipping rocks, hopping parked train cars, scouting the woods for wild rabbits, sticking their tongues out in the rain. They are also shown hitting, shoving, rough-housing, cursing one another, as well as crying and mourning peers who have committed suicide. One girl, fed up with being teased on the school bus, pulls a gun out of her backpack.
Shocking, I know, but in terms of raw footage that's as shocking as Bully ever really gets, unless you count the infuriatingly negligent "kids will be kids" response passed around by people who, we're told, hold high school administrative positions. The F-word appears six times in rapid succession and then is gone — reason enough, perplexingly, for the MPAA to slap the well-intentioned film with an R-rating (a new cut, with fewer F-words, has since been rated PG-13). Bully's most unsettling content was thankfully not caught on camera, but is rather told by the racked voices of grieving parents: David and Tina Long, whose son Tyler, 17, hung himself; and Kirk Smalley, whose son Ty, 11, also committed suicide. Both boys were said to have been bullied at school.
By now, thanks largely to high-profile names like Lady Gaga and Glee, as well as to the tireless efforts of lesser known advocates, an anti-bullying movement has swept the country. For that reason Bully might seem late to the game, though the very affecting stories told during its 99 minutes don't seem likely to hurt anyone. Also, in a kind of self-referential nod, Bully documents the banding-together of parents, friends and supporters who connect via Facebook and pledge to put an end to vicious name-calling and violence. It's the silver lining that is all but necessary after such a dark weather report on America's youth.
All of America, right? Not just the farm-scattered plains of the Bible Belt? That's what one conscientious viewer asked producer Cynthia Lowen at a recent screening in Manhattan. Her response — that urban school children who've seen the film say they recognize the bullying depicted in it as "universal" — makes sense, but she skirts the issue of whether adult city-dwellers get to use the hall pass while presumably lesser-educated, more macho-maniacal Southerners and Midwesterners are put to the test. Should Bully have put its foot down on at least one coast?
Ideally, it would have, but Bully, in trying to weave into a feature-length narrative so many stories of undeserved heartache, leaves countless questions unanswered. What, for example, has since become of youngsters Alex, Ja'maya and Kelby, who were profiled in the film? Is bullying somehow hard-wired into our culture in a way that might suggest we should be just as careful not to demonize bullies, especially young ones? Who is the intended audience: parent or teacher, bully or bullied? And what, besides joining a Facebook group, can we seriously do to help?