An examination of teenage bullying in America as seen through the eyes of three families who have endured it.
Review by Louise Keller:
The expression of grief is unmistakable. It is worn by the father whose 17 year old son Tyler committed suicide because of bullying. His sad eyes look as though every bit of joy has been plucked out of them. Tyler's story is one of those canvassed in Lee Hirsch's documentary in which the increasing phenomenon of bullying forms the subject matter.
While suicide may be the extreme result of schoolyard taunting, provoking and mental abuse, we are taken into the lives of three troubled children and their families for whom bullying has coloured and devastated their everyday existence. This documentary raises important issues that have relevance in the world today, although Hirsch's treatment does not especially engage us nor allow an emotional connection - surprising, considering the subject matter. Having enjoyed Hirsch's potent documentary Amandlah! (2002), which passionately exposed the role music has played in South Africa's struggle against apartheid, Bully left me underwhelmed.
The three families described are extremely different. It is in Yazoo County that we meet Ja'Meya, a shy, pimply 14 year old black girl whose desperation is revealed when she steals her mother's gun to scare her assailants in the school bus. She does not want to hurt anyone; just to scare them. Two months incarceration in a psychiatric ward is her punishment. Kelby is a 16 year old girl living in Oklahoma with outstanding talents on the basketball court. When revealed as a lesbian, discrimination begins and she is abused and worse still, ignored.
Most of our time is spent with twelve year old Alex from Iowa, whose prominent lips and unusual facial features prompt his school mates to call him Fish Face. He is teased, pushed, pummelled and abused - all of which, he says breaks his heart. His voice is expressionless as he says the words, as though he has become immune to it. Perhaps the film's most heartbreaking scene is the one in which he asks his mother 'If these people are not my friends, who are my friends?' Although his mother does not reply, her silence shouts the answer loudly.
Surprisingly, these kids all come from what appear to be normal, caring families. Alex is one of five children and it is clear that his mother would do anything to make life different for her son and allow him to be accepted by his peers. But most terrifying is the indifferent attitude of the school establishments: 'Kids will be kids; boys will be boys,' is the retort often heard. Hirsch (who directs and acts as cinematographer) makes no judgment, even when there is physical abuse; he simply observes, giving the film a somewhat passive feel.
The only action comes towards the end of the film, by way of rallies, local meetings and anti-bullying campaigns that have been organised by the families of the two youngsters who committed suicide. We can only hope that the shattered, vulnerable fathers of sons like Tyler, who we meet in the opening sequence and of 11 year old youngster Ty, to whom he will always remain 11, can find some catharsis in this positive action. Actions of this kind will hopefully generate awareness and counteraction to this all-too common malaise of our time affecting our children.
(Not to be mistaken for Larry Clark's ugly 2002 film of the same name that explores teenage violence in the underbelly of modern American life.)
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BULLY (2011) (M)
CAST: Documentary with Alex, Ja'Maya, Kelby, David Long, Tina Long, Kirk Smalley
PRODUCER: Lee Hirsch, Cynthia Lowen
DIRECTOR: Lee Hirsch
SCRIPT: Lee Hirsch, Cynthia Lowen
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Lee Hirsch
EDITOR: Jenny Golden, Enat Sidi, Lindsay Utz
MUSIC: Michael Furjanic, Justin Rice, Christian Rudder
RUNNING TIME: 98 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Roadshow
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: August 23, 2012