Bully: A relentless and heartbreaking call to action.

By: Britt Harvey

Bully: 112 minutes, four out of four burgers.

Director: Lee Hirsch.

From the very beginning Bully smacks you upside the head and relentlessly hacks away at your emotions for the full 112-minute running time. Much like some of the film’s young bullies, director Lee Hirsch does not give the viewer a moment of respite from the taunts, the terror and the trepidation these kids face everyday as they lace up their shoes and leave the comforting walls of their home and enter the classroom.

The film focuses on three bullied kids: Alex, 12, Kelby, 16, Ja’Meya, 14, and tells the story of Tyler Long, 17, and Ty Smalley, 11, both of whom committed suicide due to incessant bullying and whose families have taken on the anti-bullying crusade. Though all the stories are tragically heartbreaking, the movie centers on and keeps returning to Alex.

Born three months premature, Alex is different to be sure. He’s quiet, with close-set eyes, a scrunched nose and jeans just a little bit short. His sneakers are also just that extra bit too white, too new-looking, as if he’s never had a pick up game or a tussle with a friend to get them dirty.  His sister teases him for being weird. He picks up rocks and throws them onto the empty train track. He loves his baby sister. He wears an empty expression to the first day of school, his best attempt to steel himself to the abuse he knows is coming. The microphone attached to his jacket picks up his short, staccato bursts of breath, a halting cadence that belies his true feelings. For Alex the ‘school is a battlefield’ metaphor rings too painfully true. Director Lee Hirsch gets unparalleled access to Alex’s school, his hallways, and the school bus he rides day to day in Sioux City, Iowa. To say Alex’s daily bus ride is torturous to watch would not be overstating it.

Alex is repeatedly punched, kicked, slapped, and stabbed with pencils. One kid says to him, “I will end you,” then proceeds to describe in detail the number of ways in which he will kill him.

The bullying got so bad that Hirsch eventually showed the footage to school administrators and Alex’s mother. She is angry, his father is angry, why didn’t he tell? Why doesn’t he stand up for himself? His father asks. These are not your friends, his mother says. If they’re not my friends he answers, “then what friends do I have?” Alex continues, “I’m beginning to think I can’t feel anything anymore.”

I believe we sometimes have a tendency as adults to forget the heartbreaking loneliness of the pre-teen world (though pop culture has done its best to sanitize and romance the high school experience). Much like Alex’s school administrator brushes off his parent’s concerns, “Those kids on those buses are as good as gold,” she assures them, the tiny and (not so tiny) hurts we receive in youth do not fade with the arrival of our own apartments and sports cars.

Perhaps at this point I should add a small caveat to this review. I can no more be objective about the movie Bully than I could about a family member’s recent drug habit. Mostly because I believe this movie is more than a piece of ‘art’ to be judged from a cynical perspective, though it does have cinematic flourish to spare, and also because as a former bullied kid, I had a certain amount invested in the outcome of this film.

Watching Bully, it felt as though it were yesterday I was running home from school, no jacket, -30C, vowing never to return. It was the last time. Someone had thrown my books to the floor. I wasn’t welcome to sit with them that day. Or any day for that matter. Who could keep track? We change our minds so many times and make up the rules as we go. Desperate to stay on the right side of normal, something I was never quite able to manage. Crying in bathroom stalls became an everyday occurrence. Kids hate weakness. Like any good horror movie knows how to pick off the weakest link, teenagers can taste insecurity as easily as they can ascertain the difference between Pepsi and Coke. I understand the impulse, the desperate need to belong always seems to have the adverse effect, still, if I could go back there now would I do anything different?

I don’t want to sound like a martyr to the cause. I am not Alex. I am not Tyler Long. I did not endure sustained, relentless, everyday abuse. I had friends outside of school. And I left that school, went to a new one. I had friends there. The permanent stain of unworthiness and pain slowly strips away with each passing year. But the occasional memory, and movie, has the power to bring it all back. I read an article recently where the author talked about “how bullying made me a better person.” The writer said he wouldn’t change a thing. I am lucky enough to be here to agree.

Bullying has made me (an already sensitive person) more empathetic. It’s also given me superhuman senses when it comes to former bullies. Much like my insecurity was like jet fuel to my former bullies, I can sense instantly when meeting someone new if they were a bully in their youth. The only person more insecure than a bullied kid is their bully-er. Though try telling that to Alex, to Shelby (whose classmates tried to run her over with a car) to Ja’Meya (who pulled a gun on her tormentors and went to jail). These kids are in pain. Real pain. Their families feel helpless. And many (though not all) school administrators seems to hold to the “kids will be kids,” adage.

Another phrase kept coming to mind while I watched the film: “abdication of responsibility.” Schools say they aren’t responsible for what happens in the hallways, in buses, at recess, after school hours. The police are also not responsible, and in some cases, parents in the film said school security often refuse to press charges against bullies.  The film has no easy answer for this.

Should bullies be charged for their crimes? Are parents to blame for mean-spirited children? Shouldn’t schools be safe havens for vulnerable kids? Perhaps the answer is yes, no, maybe, I don’t know. All I kept thinking about when I was watching the film is that millions more people will watch a movie about children killing each other for sport, than will watch a movie about children killing themselves while a bunch of adults pass the buck.  Perhaps that makes sense in a way. In the film Bully there is no hero (save for the families, though heroic is not the word) there are no clear “winners” and “losers.”

When we play bullying as a zero sum game it is the kids that lose, both the bullies and the bullied.

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