On the heels of an ambitious campaign encouraging the Motion Picture Association of America not to slap it with an R rating, Lee Hirsch's Bully defiantly arrives in theaters unrated -- a move that not only highlights the increasing irrelevance of the notoriously biased MPAA (see Kirby Dick's illuminating 2005 doc This Film Is Not Yet Rated), but also ensures that a movie addressing such a prescient youth issue won't be stuck with a rating that implies decidedly adult content. And if nothing else, Bully certainly accomplishes its goal of raising awareness about a topic that -- according to some teens and experts -- has reached epidemic proportions in the past few decades; interviews with bullied students, their parents, and the grieving mothers and fathers of children as young as 11 who have taken their own lives after merciless harassment from their classmates are sure to hit home with outsiders young and old alike, as well as sympathetic adults still able to recall the grueling trials of adolescence.
Twelve-year-old Alex openly admits that he has trouble making friends. Taunted with calls of "Fish Face" by his classmates, he encounters sadistic threats from the moment he arrives at the bus stop in the morning, as well as physical abuse from peers who know he won't strike back. Meanwhile, 14-year-old Ja'Meya serves time in a juvenile-detention facility for threatening her bullies with her mother's gun, and 16-year-old Kelby has been ostracized by her community after coming out as a lesbian, yet she still maintains a loyal circle of friends who see her for the caring companion that she is. And though 14-year-old Devon speaks frankly about the moment he finally snapped, lashing out at his abusers after enduring their jeers for far too long, the tragic stories of Tyler Long and Ty Fields-Smalley -- two young boys who committed suicide rather than face any more abuse -- highlight the unthinkable actions that some children will take in order to find shelter from the storm of fists and slander that fall on them every day. By following the young victims of such harassment from the classrooms to their living rooms, we are given an intimate glimpse into the effects bullying has on their families and their developing sense of self-worth. Meanwhile, parents, administrators, and other students struggle to find a workable solution to the problem that will never go away unless we all stand up and face it eye to eye.
You needn't be a parent to be moved to tears by Bully's opening images of a mother and father grieving over the freshly dug grave of their 17-year-old son -- a sweet yet socially awkward kid who sought peace from bullying by hanging himself in his bedroom closet. Some may see this approach as heavy-handed coming right out of the gate, but the sad truth is that many teens who endure this kind of persecution on a daily basis have at least thought about that means of escape at some point. Shortly thereafter, as the title comes up over an image of a bus interior slowly being filled with children, we bear witness to the ride that countless students across the country dread from the moment their alarm clocks ring every morning. Then, one by one, we meet the teens who have suffered so much torment that, at least for some, they have lost the will to fight back.
A common response when the topic of bullying comes up in conversation is that "kids will be kids" or the old chestnut "high school doesn't last forever," but what these dismissive comments fail to take into account is the irony that our society celebrates athletes who earn more than the best doctors for displaying the precise kind of physical dominance that adolescent bullies pride themselves on, and that for students like Tyler and Ty who don't have the fortitude to strike back, this stage of life indeed lasts forever. As a simple vehicle for raising awareness, Hirsch's film accomplishes its goal admirably (though a more appropriate title may have been "Bullied," since the primary focus is on the victims, and we only see glimpses of the perpetrators in a pair of brief yet painful scenes that highlight ineffective school administrations' failures to deal with the problem). Of course, in order to address any problem you first need to be informed. No thanks to the MPAA, a large portion of the population now will be. Still, as Bully fades to black and the words "Everything starts with one" appear onscreen, we're reminded that this is but the first step in a crucial battle for the future -- and in some cases, the very lives -- of the generations who will inherit the Earth sooner than most of us like to think.