Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"This rawness makes the film a difficult watch in places but allows viewers to observe the grieving process up close."

There's an increasing body of documentary work out there on the subject of bullying, but few films as personal as this one. Mallory Grossman was just 12 years old when, on the 14th of June 2017, she died by suicide. Here, members of her immediate family talk about what happened, about her life, and about the action that her death inspired - the development of Mallory's Army, a project aimed at helping to ensure that other kids facing similar pressures get the help they need.

Mallory's mother, Dianne, has said of that project, and of this film, that she wanted to make sure her daughter's death meant more than just a two- news story. Initially reluctant to have people think of Mallory in terms of her suffering, she was persuaded that it was necessary in order to help others, something very much in accordance with Mallory's ideals. Though she has clearly found her feet since, speaking passionately to groups of parents and young people, there's still a degree of uncertainty and vulnerability about her. She reopened Mallory's bedroom for the first time in order to show it to the documentary team, who revisit it at various points during the film as we are shown different items that tell us something about Mallory's life.

This rawness makes the film a difficult watch in places but allows viewers to observe the grieving process up close. It's emotionally messy. Dianne's perspective shifts over the course of the film as she works through her anger and starts to take in the wider context of what has happened. Early on, she seems to be following an established roadmap for dealing with such things, up to and including setting up the foundation which becomes Mallory's Army (children's charities note that such foundations rarely remain active for more than a few years and urge bereaved parents to donate to established ones instead, but this one has certainly made a mark). Later her take on events starts to seem more her own, based more on thought and less on emotion, but what remains clear throughout is that she is just an ordinary person inevitably out of her depth. Mallory's father, Seth, is much more reserved, dealing with it in his own way, letting her take the lead, but equally lost in the face of such tragedy.

It is this tragedy, though, that the film never really seems to get to the heart of. The notion that it was all a result of bullying by girls at school is presented as received wisdom. Though some specific incidents are outlined which do a lot to back up the theory, and there's a strong section on the impact of cyberbullying, it all feels a bit unsubstantial. Could there have been other things going on? We hear about Mallory's love of gymnastics, illustrated by home videos clearly made with pride, and about her sudden decision to give it up. Apparently this was due to bullying by girls there, but what about the pressures of the sport itself, or the fact that Mallory was at an age where her body was beginning to change in ways that might not yet be noticeable to others but which would certainly be detected by a girl with a highly attuned sense of balance. There seems to be no consideration whatsoever of such possibilities. Suicide is usually informed by multiple concerns. Is the simplistic approach taken here about presenting facts or about - albeit for a good cause - building up a more pointed narrative?

At the time when filming concluded, Mallory's parents had an open lawsuit against the school district and school officials whom they blamed for inaction on bullying. Based on the material presented here, most viewers will agree that there's cause for concern, though the story is, sadly, a common one. The parents must be commended for having listened to their daughter and made every effort to help her. The suggestion made by some participants that the answer is to bring the police into schools make cause some discomfort, however, like Dianne's briefly expressed (and understandable, in light of her pain) comments on what she thinks the bullies deserve, something which she later comes to see differently.

Mallory is the perfect face for such a campaign, we are told, with an explanation that begins with the words "she's white," and it's not clear how much self awareness there is behind that statement. Later we hear about Mallory being told to shut up because she was "just a rich white girl," which is difficult to evaluate without context. Were there other issues at play in the school? The family strive to downplay any notion that they're wealthy but we can see from their videos that Mallory enjoyed a lot of advantages in life. One can't help but wonder if she was dropped into a social context where she was always going to alienate people and didn't have the skills to recognise what was going on or work out how to address the problem.

The most insightful material here comes from some of Mallory's classmates and it would be nice to hear more from them. Several adults propose solutions which suggest they've forgotten how young people think and interact. Some of this is also clumsily presented - there are some spectacular mixed metaphors with the capacity to provoke unintended laughter, which is incredibly inappropriate. Tighter editing might have helped. There are several places where the film repeats itself and a short cut might have been more powerful.

Despite these problems, this film is emotionally hard-hitting and important as an exploration of the way that harm travels through society. Its flaws stem largely from its willingness to let its subjects express their humanity and reveal the damage that has been done to them. These factors will be particularly helpful for viewers who are themselves grieving similar losses and looking for ways to reconcile conflicting emotions which may or may not dovetail with their personal beliefs.

Reviewed on: 05 Apr 2021
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Mallory packshot
A documentary about the suicide of a bullied 12-year-old and her parents' efforts to protect other children through outreach.

Director: Ash Patino

Writer: Jenna A Bush

Starring: Inez Barberio, Inez Lee Barberio, Carlee Grossman, Diane Grossman, Seth Grossman

Year: 2021

Runtime: 92 minutes

Country: US


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