When I was young I was pretty small and scrawny. While the diminutive stature did not harm my social life, nor did it make me the target of those who prey on the small and weak, I did get a brief taste of what it must have felt like to be routinely intimidated and bullied. The story, while somewhat mundane and hardly traumatizing, made quite an impression on me. Basically I, the small kid, staked out the prime seat on the bus; a seat that the big kid/bully desperately wanted to take from me. After asking me to move in a forceful manner, the boy resorted to violence (shoving and a bit of open-handed smacking on the back of my head) but I stood my ground, with my fists curled around the metal bar on the seat in front of me, and refused to give up the seat. Ultimately I won the right to stay seated, as the big kid gave up and dismissed me with some epithet. I came out of the experience shaken, but understanding that not giving in to the tyranny and oppression of the bully would later serve me in life. I had it easy compared to most children who are bullied.
While most teens in this country will no doubt be plunking down $10 to see The Hunger Games or the raunchy American Reunion movie this coming weekend, they might be better served by checking out a documentary slowly making its way into wide release, director Lee Hirsh’s Bully. While much of the attention given to this film arose from the MPAA rating controversy addressing the issue as to whether or not it deserved an “R” rating, thus deeming the film off-limits to its intended audience of teens, the film’s singularity moves well beyond ratings issues (it is now going into wider distribution as an “unrated” feature, allowing teens to see it in the theaters).
The documentary film, as the title would hint, is about the issue of bullying, particularly about how instances of bullying have impacted five particular families, in four different states, and some with very tragic results. There is Alex, who is a sensitive and bright 12-year-old boy who is mercilessly taunted, harassed and brutalized by his schoolmates. There is Ja’Meya Jackson, a 14-year-old girl who pulled out a gun on a crowded school bus threatening her frequent tormentors after enduring endless amounts of flack and abuse day after day. And most tragically there is Tyler Long, a 17-year-old boy who took his own life after many years of alienation and criticism (however there remains some controversy and criticism of the filmmaker’s handling of the Tyler Long case).
But more than the summation of these individual stories, Bully is about the growth of a movement set to acknowledge that our schools, playgrounds and buses and the children who populate these places, present a clear and present danger to vulnerable children. It is also about fostering a movement (There is a “Bully Project” which is a social action campaign associated with the film that is attempting to educate and provide parents, educators, and children with the tools to empower and change the dynamic) that doesn’t look the other way and addresses the issues of bullying and intimidation head on. It is a consciousness raising event for the picked on and their families, and a means to hold everyone accountable for such abject cruelty (parents, teachers, fellow students and not just “bullies”). It is, as NPR movie critic Bob Mondello writes, “a wrenching, intensely moral film, and so potentially useful to children who are either being bullied, or doing the bullying” and holds great potential to bring the discussion of bullying into the forefront. Finally!