Creating a compelling documentary about something so ubiquitous but often hidden as bullying in schools is an inherently challenging task, but this powerful film manages the feat by multiplying the angles. More importantly, Bully brings a series of very real, very human faces into the picture, personalizing statistics and talking heads. By way of a bracing introduction to the subject, we are faced with one of the film’s tales of young, bullied teenagers for whom harassment led to suicide.
Documentary filmmaker Lee Hirsch, who has explained that he took on the subject as a response to his encounters with bullies growing up, wisely builds a mosaic of real-life stories in Bully. He zeroes in on the individual tales of teenagers in five different states, and five different states of vulnerability, including a gay teenage girl and especially the poignant saga of Alex, a sweet-spirited but shy boy born prematurely and dubbed “fish face” by his “peers.” What the film falls short of discussing much is the root cause of those who bully — usually a screen for insecurity, power playing, and passing thumps received at home.
To some degree, Hirsch’s film achieves the fly-on-the-wall effect of Frederick Wiseman’s High School, slyly infiltrating inside the particular culture of a high school in Sioux City, Iowa. But Hirsch, a more subjective than objective documentarian in this project, is interested in the individual case studies rather than the microcosm of the school scenario itself, although that is the host environment of a problem difficult to tackle or even identify at times. “Kids will be kids,” an official shrugs. “Boys will be boys. Kids can be cruel at this age.”
At one point, the filmmakers break with a controversial tradition within the documentary rulebook, stepping into the narrative of the story and altering its course. Faced with some startling footage of bullying on the bus — a ripe spot for acts of taunting — they opted to show scenes to parents and officials, to help effect change.
Of course, change in this endemic problem — not only at the school level but also with the legacy of hate crimes in society — is slow and complex. Parents of the bullying victims, past and present, address the problem, and the apparent lack of response from officials, with frustration but also action. Toward the end of the film, we see public rallies by a coalition of concerned parents and citizens in the group Stand for the Silent. A father of a young boy fallen to suicide speaks for solidarity and compassion and triggers one of this moving film’s many tearful moments when he comments, “My son will be 11 forever.”