“Bully,” is the documentary by Lee Hirsch which addresses the tragedy of teenage children bullying other teens. While bullying is often seen as physical abuse, the film shows that words are just as powerful. Bully aims to show what teen bullying looks like in America, focusing on five families in Iowa, Oklahoma, Georgia and Mississippi, coping with bullying and the consequences of bullying. And the consequences can be devastating, as shown by two of the families who lost their sons to suicide.
The movie comes at a time when “bullying,” long tolerated as a fact of life, is being redefined as a social problem. Nevertheless, there are those who still respond (and critics who attack the film) that the issue is over-blown and that what is depicted is just part of growing up. Ironically, that is the very heart of the film, which clearly demonstrates that unless we change our view that it is “just part of growing up,” we will have more children and their families who are forever changed by these acts of “kids being kids.”
Bully is a heartbreaking, moving, infuriating, and powerful film which is a must see for those children in middle and high-school and their parents. Bully will make you cry and make you angry. Angry not so much at the bullies and the cruelty and tragic consequences of the bullying, but at the school administrators and other adults who turn a blind eye to the bullying and say “what can I do,” “just kids being kids,” and "just part of growing up.” You are confronted by adults who empathize more with the bullies than the victims. If that doesn’t make your blood boil, then you likely were a bully yourself.
Some have criticized the film for not focusing more on the bullies. Aside from the difficulty of getting the parents of bullies to allow their children to be shown bullying, the broader message is that adults are as much of the problem as are the children. Bully is really about the victims, their parents and the adults who let them down.
Just how blind can adults be? The first parents we meet are Kirk and Laura Smalley from a small town in Oklahoma. Their 11-year-old son, Ty, committed suicide due to bullying; which leaves behind devastated parents and a devoted best friend, but little if anything by those who should be there to protect him. In Georgia, we are presented with a school superintendent that adamantly denies that bullying is a problem in her district, notwithstanding the suicide of Tyler Long, a 17-year-old student who took his life after enduring years of harassment and ostracism.
The heart of the movie Bully is 12-year-old Alex Libby; a gangly, awkward, yet innocent Sioux City, Iowa boy. Before filmmaker Lee Hirsch began shooting the documentary "Bully," he walked into a school board meeting in Sioux City, Iowa, and asked for permission to film students and staff for a year while retaining full editorial control.
"We need to be in buses, classrooms, in the halls for one year," Hirsch recalls telling officials that evening in 2008. "And we're going to tell an honest story about what we find. And they agreed."
Bully documents the intensity of Alex's abuse, particularly on the bus. Hirsch's cameras captured kids stabbing him with pencils, bashing his head into seats, and threatening to kill him. Things got so outrageous and dire that Hirsch ultimately showed the more disturbing footage to staff members at Sioux City's East Middle School and to Alex's parents.
And if Alex is the heart of the film, then Kim Lockwood, the assistant principle at Alex’s school is the ultimate villain. As depicted in film, Lockwood is one of many adults who do nothing in the face of blatant student harassment. When a student at her school tells Lockwood that he had been getting death threats from other students, Lockwood didn’t offer counseling or any substantive resolution to the conflict. Instead, she suggests that he shake hands with his tormentor and move on. She goes so far as to criticize the victim of the abuse for not wanting to shake hands with his bully by saying “You’re just like him.” The poor child shoots back, ‘Cept I don’t hurt people,” which simply falls on the deaf ears of Ms. Lockwood. However audiences of the film are not silent and scream aloud at Ms. Lockwood. I wanted to ask Ms. Lockwood if she had been raped, would she shake hands with her rapist?
Later, Ms. Lockwood goes so far as to blame the bullied students for not fixing the situation themselves. That Ms. Lockwood doesn’t even pretend to take the parents’ complaints seriously, while on camera, just demonstrates how little she cares about addressing the issue of bullying. Just how oblivious is she? In a deeply disturbing and surreal scene in her office, Ms. Lockwood tries to empathize with Alex’s family when confronted with film showing Alex being brutally attacked while on a school bus, she responds that she had ridden on that particular bus route and that “Those kids are as good as gold.” She then concludes by showing Alex’s parents pictures of her granddaughter and saying, “See my baby?” “Who would want to hurt these Angels?”
At this point, moviegoers are left to gasp in horror and hoot with derision at Ms. Lockwood. However much we might despise and hate Ms. Lockwood, the point is that she is not the only scapegoat. Unfortunately, there are Kim Lockwoods in every school district across the country. Denying that there is a problem or saying that you are powerless to stop it, are no longer acceptable excuses. We must all expose and hold those accountable for allowing a culture of bullying to continue.
Bullying need not be a part of “just growing up.” Children should not be forced to accept abuse and mistreatment as some sort of “coming of age ritual” and those adults who allow cruel and horrific treatment of children to continue must be punished. As a pastor says in one poignant moment in the film: “If bartenders are responsible for their customers' intoxication, then why can't administrators be held accountable for bullying in their school?”
It reminds me of my own experiences in junior-high school where the “gym teacher” lined up kids and allowed the two “captains” to pick their team out of the assembled line-up until there was but one man standing. Who could not see how cruel and devastating that is for those always chosen last? And what kind of adult gets off on that power and allowing that to happen to kids? When I told this story to a famous Hollywood agent and how shocked I was by this, he said “that is what decides who the winners and losers in life are.” Needless to say I totally disagreed and think that it is that sort of attitude is which fosters and allows bullying to continue. There are no winners when children abuse other children and adults stand by and do nothing. Just ask the parents in the film.