Bully (2011) Blu-ray Review: A Disappointing Approach to a Complex Issue

At the end of Lee Hirsch’s Bully, we’re told that “Everything starts with one.” This is a reference to the idea that the prevention of bullying, a complex social problem, can sprout from the actions of one individual. The 2011 documentary’s recurrent insistence to “Take a stand” furthers this notion, while a visit to The Bully Project’s website suggests that part of taking said stand is seeing the movie.

What we have with Hirsch’s film is a well-made, glossy documentary that is heavy on emotional aesthetics and unfortunately lean on pragmatism and examination. While Bully grants unprecedented and often seemingly invasive access to the school experiences of several kids, its evasion of the complications of bullying leaves a lot to be desired.

The picture follows a number of kids and their families through the 2009-2010 school year. It opens with the heartrending story of Tyler, a bullying victim who hung himself. The camera focuses on members of his family, including his father, and even follows his mother into the room where he took his own life. We also meet Alex, a lonely 12-year-old who enters the comatose nightmare that is the school bus and experiences abuse at the hands of fellow students.

Kelby, a 16-year-old lesbian who wants to make a difference, is also featured. She is wounded by prejudice in the arms of the Bible Belt in Oklahoma, with the whole town turning on her and her family after she came out. There’s also Ja’Meya Jackson, a 14-year-old who took a gun with her on the school bus after experiencing nastiness at the hands of bullies.

The movie’s focus depends on the subject. Bully spends the lion’s share of its time with Alex, using several lovely shots of trains to take us through his day-to-day life. We examine him hovering on the periphery, buzzing around groups of people and trying to fit in. We see his parents and we witness the passivity of the assistant principal at his school.

The tale of Kelby is an interesting one in that it seems to open some doors to examining the effects of bigotry on one’s development, but the film’s approach is dismissive. Instead of dealing in the prejudices of her town and determining why bullying occurs, the audience is treated to slick scenes of Kelby and her friends hanging out in the rain and waxing philosophical.

And that, unfortunately, is Hirsch’s favoured approach. While there certainly is value to the stories we are exposed to, there comes a point when stories have to translate to something more substantive. While we should hear loudly from the victims, another layer of context involving the perpetrators and their reasons (or lack thereof) would’ve constructed a more exhaustive picture.

In my home province of British Columbia, we witnessed with horror the bullying and suicide of Amanda Todd. We collectively grieved, but we were also appalled at the grotesque exploitation of her memory and likeness at the hands of tormenters and Internet trolls. What kind of lunacy leads to such treatment? What causes people to be so cruel?

The layers of the Todd case are many and the journey to uncover what causes abusive behaviour and creates bullies is not an easy one, but we do indeed live in a world where we treat each other atrociously – even as adults. For a film like Bully to merely wander the surface is problematic, but its insistence on viewers following up via the website and subsequent book seems somewhat crass.

The picture neglects to investigate and its few “answers” are naïve. It falsely infers that “standing up” for oneself solves these wrongs; one child proudly describes how he is no longer tormented because he stood up for himself, but it isn’t known what this involved. The ball is passed to school administrators. They are given the bulk of the blame and sometimes deserve it, but stopping harassment requires more than just an authoritative touch.

Hirsch also seems to live in a world confined to classical views of the school bus and the schoolyard. There is no mention of cyber-bullying or other forms of the behaviour, but we all know that people are tormenting in many environments to often disastrous results.

Bully is an elegant documentary but it is too slick and easy for its own good. It covers an intricate issue, one with roots in abusive behaviour and multiple thorns in ground that surely deserves more analysis. Hirsch’s failure to do so makes Bully less a must-see and more a well-shot exercise in subject management.

The 1080p Blu-ray release looks the part with crisp, colourful visual presentation and 5.1 DTSHD audio. There are English and Spanish subtitles. The combo pack includes a DVD and some literature that directs people to The Bully Project’s website. There’s also a bracelet from the organization.

As far as bonus features go, Bully is pretty generous. A “special version” of the picture is included for “younger audiences.” It runs about 47 minutes and cuts out a lot of the harsher material, furthering the controversy about the picture’s MPAA rating. For this release, the language appears to have been toned down somewhat to achieve a PG-13 rating.

There are also some deleted scenes and a couple of features on Alex and Kelby to go with interviews and segments that advertise organizations that can help bullied youth. A segment from “Good Morning America” is also included, featuring Hirsch and Alex with Katie Couric. A two-minute blurb with former Assistant US Secretary of Education Kevin Jennings rattles off some statistics, while “We Are Daniel Cui” tells a story about supporting a soccer goalie through social networking.

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Critical curmudgeon

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