Bullying is an implied facet of going to school. “Stand up for yourself” is a common line that parents throw to their children like it was a reasonable solution to a festering problem. It seems that as long as the world houses the meek, the “weird” and socially askew, bullying will be an impenetrable fact of life. Yet, for as much as it continuously incubates in our schools, playgrounds and buses, we’ve never truly grasped the gravity of prolong exposure to bullying up until now. Now, more than ever, bullying is on the nation’s radar. Which makes sense because social media has provided avenues for anti-bullying campaigns to blossom. Stemming from these campaigns are tales that paint bullying as the death of youth, as a collection of bully victims have taken their own life to eliminate the incessant emotional and physical prodding they endure. Such an example comes to us in the form of Tyler Long. Three years ago, Tyler took his own life due to the turmoil he experienced from misguided classmates. Tyler’s death weighs heavy on his grieving parents, who are left to wonder what they could’ve done differently, and most importantly, what their son’s school could’ve done differently. The Long’s heartbreak and anger emphatically opens up Lee Hirsch’s documentary titled Bully.
Within seconds Tyler’s story parallels the life of Alex, a twelve-year-old boy wading through teenage awkwardness. Alex is a precocious kid that loves his family and trains, but he is a kid who is constantly victimized to the point that he’s becoming emotionally numb. Doubling Alex’s losses is the fact that the physical and emotional torment is the closest thing he has to a friendship. Facing similar abuse as Alex is Kelby. Sixteen and featuring a buoyant optimism, Kelby’s ostricization emanates from her sexual preference. Being a lesbian in the Oklahoma Bible Belt isn’t entirely accepted, a notion that becomes all too real when Kelby discusses a point in time where she was hit by a car because of her sexual orientation. Despite being seen as a leper, Kelby stands her ground in a town that’d just as well see her dead. Considering the abuse and gawking Kelby receives, it’s easy to see how a young woman can call upon extreme measures to calm the traumatic waves crashing on her. Enter in Ja’Meya, a 16-year-old girl confined to a juvenile center after she brought her mother’s gun to school to disrupt the bully mentality. Serving her time under the state’s watchful eye, Ja’Meya is a prime example of how bullying can provoke a human away from their faculties.
Finalizing the detriment of bullying is the suicide of an 11-year-old boy named Ty Smalley. Once again, it’s heartbreaking to see a child pushed to an unthinkable limit. By inserting us into the lives of victims and circumventing statistics, Lee Hirsch cuts to an alarming problem that is swept under the rug. As Bully would dictate, part of the problem is a lack of transparency. Perpetuating the problem further are education systems that believe stern speeches minimize bullying. In one such moment, Alex’s parents meet with his principal to voice concern over his safety on the bus. Contrary to the footage Alex’s parents see, the principal laughably plays it off like nothing serious is going on. Infuriating moments like this bubble throughout the film. From broken promises to the lack of accountability, the school’s presence in stopping bullying is nothing but a specter, a notion that prompts the Long and Smalley families to speak up for the children who are constantly put down. The aforementioned families and the kids involved with the film deserve applause for opening up their lives and giving bully victims a proper stage. Through their difficult stories, we see bullying in a manner that is no longer acceptable. This especially holds true when we examine the film’s stories through Alex’s perspective. By looking at the stories of Tyler Long, Ty Smalley or Ja’Meya, we can’t help but wonder if Alex will go down those desperate paths. Thinking of endgames along those lines is frightening, but entirely plausible for the beatings that Alex takes and the lack of involvement from his school. To put it bluntly, director Lee Hirsch puts a face to a problem that has been foolishly pegged as a growing pain.
Despite the significance of the stories above, and the heartfelt observations by Lee Hirsch, Bully still doesn’t quite capture the entire depth of the problem. Undoubtedly, the gravity surrounding the situation can mean life and death, but the film ruminates on accusations, not solutions. Granted, Hirsch doesn’t particularly owe us solutions, but if you’re going to point fingers, you might as well offer recommendations for growth. Moreover, the film misses an opportunity to dissect the construction of a bully, which is weird considering they’re the source of such grief. Without exploring how an abusive person comes into existence, we truly can’t attack destructive behavior. By no means does this lack of depth cheapen the stories of Alex, Ja’Meya or Kelby, or those who silenced their own life because of bullying. If anything, Bully is a film that opens our eyes to an issue we can no longer afford to sidestep or try to solve with empty words. Through the bravery of all the families and kids involved, we know the grave effect bullying can have on our youth; now it’s in our hands to find a solution.