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Published on April 13th, 2012 | by Ernie Estrella


Movie Review: Bully – Uncovering The Desperate Cries For Help

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bully alexIn Alex Libby’s school, the principal is just as big a bully as the ones who victimize him on a daily basis, as shown when two of his classmates come back from recess soon after an altercation. One is a nice boy, offering his hand in apology, the other refuses to extend his hand or be sincere in returning the gesture. The principal pats the nice boy on the shoulder and sends him on his way and then proceeds to scold the other–the boy who was originally picked on. When he explains himself, he is denigrated while the guilty boy goes unpunished. That’s the tag team that plagues so many schools–bully and teacher–and is just one of the several real stories exposed in Lee Hirsch’s documentary Bully.

David and Tina Long, hail from Murray Country, Georgia and found their 17-year old son Tyler hanging from his bedroom closet after being bullied for several years and negligence from the local school board. Tyler’s passing finally triggers the opening the eyes and ears in a community that’s riddled with bully problems.

Kelby, 16 was a star athlete until she came out as a lesbian. Her hometown of Tuttle, Oklahoma turned not only on her but her entire family overnight. Treated as a pariah by her former teammates, classmates, and teachers, Kelby bravely stands in the face of the hatred by refusing to leave and let the bullies win. She doesn’t do so alone and has a strong but small supportive group by her side, but is her courage enough to change the culture of a conservative town?

Alex, 12 is from Sioux City, Iowa and admits to having a hard time making friends. His daily verbal and physical abuse begins at the bus stop in the morning and doesn’t let up until he gets inside his home. His parents get only partial reports of what’s really happening and the administrators would rather sweep the problems under the rug than dig in and make a difference.

bully jameyaIn Yazoo County, Mississippi, after getting a daily ear load of verbal abuse on her hour-long bus rides, 14-year old Ja’Meya’s stowed her mother’s loaded handgun on board one day to show her instigators that she had finally had enough. For her sake, she was lucky she does not pull the trigger, but is incarcerated in a juvenile detention center away from her family, facing multiple felony charges.

And finally we meet Kirk and Lauren Smalley who also lost their 11-year old to bully-cide and vow to turn his loss into a gain by creating Stand for the Silent, a lifeline for others who share their grief but also raise awareness and get bystanders to become upstanders, and help stop the problems that plague our culture, because bullying cannot be isolated to the tormenter and the victim. It’s bigger than the parents of both sides; it’s something that communities have to devote themselves to in creating safe school environments.

Two of the families who experienced bullying were forced to relocate after years of inaction. These aren’t negligent or weak families, they’re exhausted after asking for help and getting none. It was already too late for Smalleys and Longs, who were both in the process of healing, having already lost their sons, yet their efforts to help other victims offers one of the few rays of hope. One wonder what Bully can do to help in the situation? What can these real stories and experiences drive harder than a fictional story with actors? I believe because they are real–that show the real consequences, makes the problem more urgent, more important that we stop running away from it because one more death related to bullying is too many.

Alex’s fear of disappointing his family and cries for help fell on deaf ears, especially on those who had the power to do something (teachers and principals). That only magnified the unsafe environment for the victims. In many cases, educators try too hard to be youth’s best friend instead of their protectors, especially when they are outnumbered for example in the case of defending a gay or lesbian child. Alex’s daily abuse is captured for an entire year, but when the sweet-natured boy is asked about how he feels when he’s bullied, his words are an alarm that something must be done to end this cycle of madness.

“Sometimes I want to be the bully, so that I can bully the bullies.”

bully david longBully kicks up the dirt and dust settled on an issue that has been ignored for too long. It shows is that to institute a real change, it needs to be done as a cultural change–because it is so deeply engrained. Excuses like “kids will be kids” are used to keep the cries for help sound like whispers. Even the MPAA did their best to limit those who viewed it, but don’t let all that dumb drama take away from the film. Do know that finally getting a PG-13 rating helps it get into schools, and potentially mandated for all schools to use it a learning tool for teachers, parents and students. That’d be a start in the right direction, certainly, but why wait for that to happen?

Bully can affect kids who aren’t bullied, because they could see what a difference could be made in standing up for those victimized and it could make many who partake in bullying realize how much their words and actions hurt. Bully could help empower those who have felt lonely or helpless because these stories, and the degree of the victims’ torment finally gets some awareness. They rarely get heard or seen, as most people only bother to even read about bullying when it’s too late because it either ends in suicide or a school shooting.

And when bullying doesn’t go that far, we just don’t hear about it, even though the emotional, psychological and at times physical wounds do just as much to stunt a child’s development. With the advent of social networking, it’s easy to damage the reputation of someone with the send button on a phone or computer. We are becoming more diverse country, and as minorities and the LGBT community gain more rights, I just don’t see how a movie like Bully can be ignored.

If there’s a shortcoming, it’s that Hirsch doesn’t reach out to the bullies–to show that their behavior is wrong. Many bullies don’t even realize the effects of their actions, and most people don’t know how little is done when victims are brave enough to report incidents.

bully kelbyI feel the reason we don’t see the bullies’ point of view is because Bully allows for the victims to be heard for once. They’ve waited long enough. Besides, bullying is a cowardly act as it is; no one is going to freely admit to it, well except for the principal at Alex’s school, who by the way, still holds that position as of the writing of this review.

Are we really concerned about the education of our youths or is that just a buzzword when it comes to getting votes and city levies passed? Kids have to feel safe enough to go to school to get that education so they can reach their potential. Bully shows that there are many who don’t feel safe.

Far be it me to determine what should and should not be mandatory viewing by a child, but speaking as a parent, I believe Bully serves as relevant and important tool for middle school youths and up, parents, educators, school administrators. The victims featured range from ages 11 to 17 and the film deals with suicide and death that might need to be explained to a middle school child, but it’s clear children face bullying long before high school sets in. Active parenting is always recommended, and when viewing Bully it’s probably more positive when viewed together to open a dialogue afterwards. Like other documentaries that serve as a call to action, the potential power of Bully, relies on the number of people who see the film and most importantly, act on it.

To see if Bully is playing at a theater near you, visit Bully’s official website to see where it is showing.

Starring: Alex, Ja’Meya, Kelby, David Long, Tina Long, and Kirk Smalley
Directed by: Lee Hirsch
Studio: The Weinstein Company
Release Date: April 13, 2012


8.5 / 10

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  • Lynda Rasmussen

    I came across this article looking for information on whether or not that principal was fired. I can not believe she is still in that school or in any sort of leadership role of children. Sad! 

    • Ernie Estrella

      It was my understanding she is still there. We had anti-bullying advocates attend my press screening in San Diego who conducted a Q&A after the film and that principal signed a waiver, and knew exactly what she said and did on camera and didn’t have a problem with it. Hopefully her practices are exposed and the people around there care enough. I’d be fearful if someone came to my school to make a doc about bullying, this woman must’ve thought she’d be a movie star.

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