Reviewed by: David Graham

An alarming flip-side to Larry Clark's identically named 2002 teen drama - which gave a soberingly nihilistic insight into a real-life table-turning incident - this deeply upsetting documentary may not tell you anything you didn't know, but it will sure as hell remind you of some experiences you'd probably rather forget, while offering hope that something can and will be done to to avoid the tragedies it chronicles repeating themselves.

Following a handful of brave young souls whose daily school-life is a regime of merciless torment and silent suffering, as well as a few families who've lost a child to suicide and one mother whose daughter resorted to potentially deadly retaliation, Bully paints a shocking portrait of an education system that is failing to protect its most vulnerable pupils while shirking its responsibility to prevent further harm. Director Lee Hirsch is careful not to lay blame at just one doorstep - with politicians, police, over-worked parents and even other pupils all shown to be partially culpable - but the overwhelming impression is of teachers turning blind eyes, passing bucks and even at times joining in or exacerbating the abuse rather than tackling the problem head-on.

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The reasons these children are targeted are shown to range from appearance, weight, race and gender to perceived and actual sexuality, highlighting an age-old spectrum of prejudice that the adults often reinforce or at least tolerate, consciously or otherwise. This bigotry is universal but perhaps especially entrenched in these Southern towns where the film is set, so far removed from the more enlightened coastal cities where most of these kids will hopefully find their feet and a place to blossom in later life. It is however heartening to see how these children are sometimes enlightening the grown-ups around them, with one openly gay girl especially determined to make a difference, already having done so by educating her previously homophobic parents through her fearless honesty.

Hirsch could be accused of dwelling a little too manipulatively on a string of grief-stricken parents, but having an understanding of their irrevocable pain and regret makes their eventual grassroots movements towards turning the tide all the more cathartic and uplifting, not unlike what's happening with The Interrupters. Many potential viewers will be put off by the solemnity of the subject matter - especially during a particularly pandering opening sequence - but they shouldn't be: there's plenty of light as well as shade here, the victims and their families given time and space to establish themselves as sympathetic individuals that any one of us could have been or could even still become. There are moments when you wish you could reach into the screen to give some of these poor kids a shake or a cuddle (sometimes they're not getting either from the parents), to try and make them assert themselves more or reassure them that these years will pass and things will get better, but Bully manages to capture without words a sense that these children are bigger than their travails and will become strong adults who will likely leave their tormentors behind in the small-town dust-bowls that foster such cruelty. But would this even count as breaking the cycle, or just walking away from it?

Various arguments arise from the adults as to how the kids should deal with their plight - such well-worn pearls of wisdom as 'They'll leave you alone if you ignore them' and 'Hit them back and they'll go away' are bandied around desperately, the latter even apparently working in a couple of instances. Some of the bullying is obviously a direct result of the way oblivious parents treat their kids at home and put them out into the public dressed as if to invite the abuse (one kid's line in cutesy T-shirt statements is just asking for trouble). Elsewhere, bittersweet recollections from the best pal of one of the suicide victims give an unflinching account of how a child can transition from being a bully themselves, as well as how hard it can be to gauge the true level of the internal damage the victims are harboring.

Hidden camera footage provides especially distressing evidence of the extent of the physical abuse, the documentarians breaking an unwritten rule of their trade when they are compelled to intervene by sharing their findings with the parents and teachers in a last-ditch bid to wake them up to the severity of the problem. This may come off as melodramatic, but any one of these children could be the next one to take their own lives - or somebody else's - at any given moment, charging the film with a very palpable tension. The youngest suicide examined was a mere 11 years old, and the girl who brandished her mother's firearm in a provoked outburst of anger was only 14 at the time: this incident is shown via school-bus security camera, further highlighting how this traditional commute can often become a prison-like dog-pound where drivers use the road as an excuse not to get involved. Footage of the would-be avenger in a juvenile psychiatric institution is sure to bring tears to the eyes of even the most shrewd observer, her single mother showing admirable strength but obviously blaming herself for everything, while unforgiving interviews call to question the way American authorities will in some cases just lock the kids away until they feel they've done penance for daring to stand up for themselves.

While it must have been difficult to get people to open up about their involvement, Hirsch's film could have been better balanced if it delved deeper into the mind-sets of the bullies themselves. For the most part though they aren't vilified in the way they could so easily have been, the reasons for their insecurity-fueled abuse plain to see via hints of their own dysfunctional home lives and a lack of parental care or control that perhaps goes hand in hand with affluence. This financial superiority some of the kids feel could also explain their pack mentality, but it just goes to show that money can indeed be the root of evil.

In some ways harking back to such slice-of-life fiction as Kes, Bully is by necessity an emotionally draining experience, perhaps running a little beyond most viewers' attention spans for such morally confronting material, but it ends on a tentative note of hope with several rallies reaching out to the most blighted working-class communities. The problem could well be seen as an epidemic that's spreading even further, like an unfettered infection, through the advent of internet for all and social networking, with the powers that be largely washing their kid-gloved hands. There are no easy answers presented here, although the presence of the film-makers appears to have galvanized some of the teachers into some kind of action. The simple sharing of these stories and spreading of awareness could well be the best way to start dismantling this culture of aggression and martyrdom, making Bully a positive step forward in a battle that despite having been around forever has clearly only just begun.

Reviewed on: 23 Nov 2012
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A documentary about some of the devastating effects of school bullying in the US.
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Read more Bully reviews:

Anne-Katrin Titze ****

Director: Lee Hirsch

Writer: Lee Hirsch, Cynthia Lowen

Starring: Alex, Ja'Maya, Kelby

Year: 2011

Runtime: 98 minutes

Country: US


Tribeca 2011

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