‘Bully’ strikes back at devastating problem

Ja'Meya is comforted by her mother in the new film, "Bully." / Photo: The Weinstein Co.

By// Avis Weathersbee

Bully, a new film that depicts the cruel and sadistic treatment many kids suffer at the hands of their peers, has been in the headlines in recent days because of the struggle its distributor faced in trying to secure a PG-13 rating.

The heart-wrenching documentary takes a veritae approach in scenes such as one where a child hurls a stream of threatening expletives (“I will ******* end you and shove a broomstick up your *** …”) at 12-year-old Alex, who, touchingly, just wants to make a few friends. It is because of its language that the MPAA rejected an appeal from The Weinstein Co. and saddled the film with an R rating.

Rather than accept the R, which would ban kids under 17 not accompanied by a parent or guardian, Weinstein Co. will opt instead to release it today without a rating and count on individual theaters to make their own judgments.

The fight for the less restrictive rating stems from fears that the youth demographic which the film portrays — and that filmmakers want to reach — won’t have easy access to the documentary. On the one hand, I agree. But on the other hand, compelling parents and kids to see the movie together could provide residual benefits…

Mom and dad need to be as much a part of the change these tormented kids are crying out for as do their children. Not only do they need to take it seriously and keep pressing kids reluctant to share their often degrading stories, but those whose kids are doing the bullying need to take action to end their bad behavior.

Bully takes us into the worlds of five kids who have been impacted by this abusiveness, which seems to have risen to the level of sport for some adolescents. In addition to Alex, we are introduced to Kelby, Ty, Ja’Meya, and Tyler — some stories are narrated by the kids, while others, sadly, are told by parents whose kids aren’t around to speak for themselves.

From a gay 16-year old ostracized and ridiculed both in school and her small Oklahoma town to a 14-year-old who in desperation grabs a gun when pushed to the edge to an 11-year-old so tortured he plunges over the edge, taking a heartbreaking permanent way out – director Lee Hirsch skillfully blends their unique stories into one powerful whole.

Despite all the anguish within their walls, the schools seem to be at a disconnect to what’s going on. A boy tearfully describes what he’s been subjected to by another boy (“he pushes you into walls, threatens to break your arm, stab you…”), yet the extent of the assistant principal’s intervention is to patronize the child, telling him that refusing to shake the other boy’s hand makes him just like the attacker. The upset youngster responds, “Except I don’t hurt people.”

The documentary succeeds in capturing the real emotional ordeal of its young subjects. We feel their pain and sense of hopelessness in not being able to figure a way out. It also poignantly shows the suffering of those close to the five kids. When isolated Alex’s mom tells him the boys battering him aren’t his friends, he asks “If you say these people aren’t my friends then what friends do I have.” She has no answer for him.

Bookended by Tyler’s story, which opens the documentary with a tragedy and closes it with the beginnings of a worldwide movement for change, Bully, in its raw look at kids’ inhumanity to each other should be considered required viewing in America’s classrooms.

In the meantime, see it with your child – whether your local theater requires you to or not. 

Directed by Lee Hirsch. It opens today in New York and Los Angeles. Distributed by the Weinstein Co. 90 mins.

POSTSCRIPT: Two weeks after Bully’s release in New York and Los Angeles, the film opened wide with the desirable PG-13 rating after Weinstein Co. and the MPAA each gave a little.