Tuesday, April 17, 2012


In America, Where Some Adults Let The Bullied Suffer

Alex, the central subject of Lee Hirsh's documentary "Bully". 
The Weinstein Company


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Tuesday, April 17
, 2012

The pre-release ratings furor surrounding Lee Hirsch's new documentary "Bully" doesn't obscure the fact that it is a very insightful and clear-headed account of five families whose pre-teen or teenage children have either been incarcerated, hounded or committed suicide (in two cases), as a result of incessant bullying in school. 

"Bully" is profound in its simplicity and the eloquence of the young, authentic, intelligent voices that speak with reason, sensibility and calm.  They are the new adults of the future.  The adults of the present (at least some of them) are kids who still haven't grown up in their mentality toward addressing an epidemic problem.  (The film's website states that "13 million kids will be bullied this year.")

Alex (in photo above) is 12.  He is bullied tirelessly at school in Iowa.  On a school bus Alex is teased, tormented, hit, spat upon by other kids and classmates.  He doesn't fight back.  He comforts himself into believing he's only being toyed with, and that the kids "don't mean it" or are "just joking".  Alex's parents think otherwise.  The school administrator handles the situation with "kid" gloves, patronizing Alex and his parents. 

Alex is the awkward, charismatic center of "Bully", and Mr. Hirsch frames a balanced perspective not only in the film's five absorbing, intimate stories -- including of Ja'Meya, 14, a quiet Mississippi girl who brings a gun on a school bus to defend herself after months of bullying and faces the full weight of the law -- but also from teachers and administrators, including a sincere, committed assistant principal in Alex's school. 

Alternating between harrowing incidents caught on camera and heartfelt personal accounts, "Bully" asks whether schools are responsible for unsanctioned violent acts that occur on their premises or whether parents need to take an even more active stance to protect their children.  "We can't be there every single second," one parent says.  What about bullying off the school premises?  How about this

Left largely unspoken but palpable in its deafening silence (or absence) is the 800-pound elephant lurking in every classroom: the potential that the bullied will commit a school massacre on the level of Columbine or Virginia Tech or on any scale whatsoever.  Or by self-ending life, as Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi did in 2010.  Floating in the film's tense, heavy, sorrowful ether is the violence of American society in general and the nation's desensitizing to it.  Many of the school's teachers and administrators suffer from that same numbness or blindness and by implication don't feel their job description calls upon them to be referees in a playground battle royale.  The idea is that kids will be kids, and that getting hit is part of the initiation of youth.  (There's also a certain American mentality of "sink or swim", "you're own your own", "you're not my child so you're not my responsibility" that permeate some of the adult responses to the issues in "Bully".)

"You two need to work out your issues together," one hapless admin says to Alex, not long after he has been threatened.  It's an aggravating, pathetic response by an adult, whom herself fails to work out or resolve the very issue which she is charged to.  (I don't remember whether or not this particular admin has kids of her own, but if she does, shame on her.  If she doesn't, shame on her, too.)

While "Bully" shows us pros and cons and reveals self-indicting adults and overzealous responses to potential violence from law enforcement, along with a series of reasoned, courageous children particularly at passionate, emotional town hall meetings, the film's fulcrum moment is the overwhelming nationwide activism to end bullying.  Often from tragedy emerges a powerful, unifying movement (hence the aftermath of the killing of Trayvon Martin: a nationwide movement to seek justice and stop violence.)

Bullying is ubiquitous.  In the corridors of the home it is learned from parents, from television, from the stimuli of a violent world, from government officials and governments who go to war, unprovoked.  Bullying doesn't start in junior high or high school.  In my daughter's daycare class there is a bully who is three years old.  (He's in a different section from my daughter.)  The parents who have kids in the same section as the bully have complained but nothing has been done.  Many of those parents have pulled their children out of the daycare center as a result.  Still, the bully reigns. 

I liken the above to a sexual harassment situation: an employee is told to report it and that workplaces don't tolerate it, but when a woman (or man) reports it, in numerous instances the workplace summarily discharges the accuser and/or tells the accused that he (or she) has been "ratted" on.  "Bully" is as much about the adult avoidance of confrontation (in dealing with serious issues) and "looking the other way" as it is about the pervasive violent incidents of a beleaguered child's day.

In "Bully" Mr. Hirsch has offered up a timely, important film, and as with Michael Moore's "Bowling For Columbine", it probes answers to sometimes unanswerable questions.  That the director is asking them is a start, which is precisely what "Bully" is: the thoughtful, complex and carefully-measured beginning of a discussion that has no end.  To parents and school administrators of America: it's flowers of hope and power or funerals of helplessness and pain.  Take your pick.

"Bully" is not rated by the Motion Picture Association Of America.  It contains violence and foul language.  The film's running time is one hour and 39 minutes.

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