'Bully': a devastating documentary about childhood interrupted
A review of "Bully" — a compelling, necessary, flawed documentary about the devastating effects of bullying on young souls.
Seattle Times movie critic
'Bully,' a documentary directed by Lee Hirsch. 98 minutes. Rated PG-13 for language. Several theaters.
An important new documentary, "Bully" presents so many devastating moments that it's hard to pick the most powerful one. Is it when Alex, a sweet but awkward 12-year-old who's bullied mercilessly by the kids on his school bus, says quietly that "they push me so far that I want to become the bully"? Is it when Kelby, a bright and thoughtful gay teenager, tells the camera that she's attempted suicide three times? Is it when a clueless middle-school vice principal chirpingly tells Alex's parents that the kids on his bus are "good as gold"? Is it the sight of a 12-year-old pallbearer, at the funeral of a friend who took his own life? Or perhaps it's a mother turned activist, reminding us that her beloved son will be "11 years old forever."
Lee Hirsch's film focuses on five children, two of whom are forever young: Tyler Young and Ty Smalley, both long bullied by their peers, committed suicide at the ages of 17 and 11. The others are Alex, Kelby and Ja'Meya, a 14-year-old honor student who brought her mother's gun to school after finding herself unable to tolerate her tormentors. (The gun was not fired; Ja'Meya, when we meet her, is in a juvenile- detention facility.)
Tyler and Ty's broken parents speak for their sons; while the others vividly describe their own situations — aided by Hirsch's camera, which follows Alex onto the bus and records some truly upsetting moments. (Presumably the bullies didn't know the camera was there; some of their faces are blurred out.)
"Bully" isn't perfect, and it's easy to nitpick Hirsch's choices. (Why are all the kids from the South or Midwest? Why does the camerawork occasionally — and distractingly — lose focus? Why is cyberbullying barely mentioned?) But you watch the film with gratitude that Hirsch made it, and with hope that seeing these images and hearing these stories will inspire action.
"Bully" was originally rated as "R," meaning that school groups could not see it without special permission; it's now, after an uproar, re-rated as PG-13 (due to a very minor edit of a few words). Teens, and their parents, may well find comfort in this hard-to-watch movie, learning that they're not alone — and may leave believing that, if they join together, change is possible.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org