Friday, April 13, 2012

The solution to the bully problem is ...

Bully has expired in its news cycle: rating wars with the Motion Picture Association of America, rallying (and bullying) producers, petitions on and then even more ratings bickering. Its makers have forgotten that pop culture is a fickle supporter, and Bully is already this week’s Trayvon Martin, which was last week’s Kony2012.

They’re calling this armchair activism: people using Twitter or Facebook to carpetbomb the internet for a cause without actually participating in it. I’m guilty of it. Many people are.

But Bully has another problem entirely — it offers no solution. Trayvon Martin supporters are wearing their hoodies out in mass trying to end a broader problem (gun violence) by starting with specific ones (the arrest of Trayvon’s killer, ending “Stand Your Ground” laws). Even the Kony2012 crew has a specific mission in mind (send in American advisors to arrest or kill warlord Joseph Kony).

Bully, though, just watches, and painfully so. At the end we’re supposed to know that bullying is bad, but didn’t we know that already? Certainly there is more to this problem than what comes after a hashtag. An argument can be made that a documentary is not supposed to answer questions, but ask them. My counter to that would be this: a great documentary tells a story and stories have endings, sometimes even ambiguous ones. Bully has no ending. It simply tapers off. The din of grief howls less and less until there’s silence, and then credits.

I heap criticism on Bully for not doing more, but make no mistake about it this is a powerful film, one that every young person in America should see before they’re allowed to return to school.

Bully follows several kids as they go about their lives in small towns in the Midwest and the South. The main star is Alex, an awkward and innocent boy who is terminally taunted at his middle school. This kid … you’ll just want to hug him every time he’s on the screen. During school he quietly wanders from one failed encounter to another, and then on the bus ride home he’s assaulted in a vicious daily cycle. Every word aimed at him is cruel and hurtful. Every punch is bitter and remorseless. What’s so shocking is that the camera, a silent witness, is right there and still they brutalize this poor kid. Makes you wonder what they do when there’s no camera around.

Alex, born premature and small, comes from a good home with loving parents. One day after school, Alex tells his dad that the boys on the bus punch him, choke him and call him names, but “they’re just joking.” His father gently reminds him that those aren’t jokes, and if they are Alex isn’t in on them. Late in the film, Bully starts to really get somewhere deep with Alex. He tells the camera: “I get bullied … and sometimes it makes me want to be the bully.”

The principal at Alex’s school is a kind and patient woman, but her head is planted somewhere that isn’t decent for publication in a family newspaper. In her opinion, bullying at her school isn’t that bad. “They’re right as gold,” she says about her students. At this point we’ve already seen the footage of Alex getting choked, punched, cussed at, harassed, threatened, poked, slapped and pushed, so we know she couldn’t be more wrong. Either the principal is blind, or she’s in denial. And what about the mountain of complaints about bullies? “They’re just boys being boys.”

The film shifts between several bullying victims. One is a teen from Mississippi who had quite enough from her tormentors so she took a gun on the bus and flashed it around before she was tackled and arrested. We pick up with her story as she works her way through the justice system, and as her mother plans her return home. Another subject is a gay teen from Oklahoma. She endures bullying from the students and the teachers and eventually has to move away to find a school where she can learn in peace. It’s funny how hate comes from areas rich in religious fervor.

Bully also follows several parents who have lost children due to bully-instigated suicide. These stories are especially heartfelt and raw. Watch as one mother goes into a room and calmly points out where her son hung himself. Watch as another parent, an avid hunter with a buckskin knife on his belt and a camouflaged hat, opens himself up and accepts the embrace of young people who have committed themselves to making a difference at their schools.

Director Lee Hirsch has a terrific eye for framing and close-ups. He gets his subjects to open up and share in ways that are honest and accessible. I love how his camera follows Alex, staring at him, allowing us to admire him and his uniqueness. Hirsch’s focus — literally, the sharpness of the picture — wanders wildly within each shot. This was a stylish accessory, one that doesn’t always seem necessary. What makes the movie so unforgettable is the unprecedented access that Hirsch gets. We not only see the bullying, but the bullies themselves, and only one has their face pixilated to hide their identity.

Behind all the ratings controversy — the film won a PG-13 in a lengthy and public appeal to the MPAA — Bully is a thought-provoking and moving documentary that attempts to expose a very large, very dynamic problem. The movie has noble intentions with its frustration-laden stories about bullying, but its ultimate goal is hard to make out in the haze. Bully suggests no action, no prevention methods, no problem solving. It’s purely awareness.

At one point in Bully there’s a town hall meeting to discuss how to handle bullying. Students, parents, community leaders, police … they all shake their heads in frustration. No one has an answer. But surely someone somewhere is doing something that works. That’s a story that I wanted in this film, the one that offered a solution.