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Bully Review

By Geoff Morrison

The kids aren't alright

"Bully" affected me on so many differently levels I'm having a difficult time coherently expressing them. As someone who was relentlessly bullied throughout childhood, I couldn't hope to be objective on this topic. Nor should I be.

So let me break the discussion into two parts: the movie, and the message.

The Movie

"Bully," as you'd assume from the title, shines a light on the problem of bullying in schools across the country. It focuses on several families whose sons committed suicide after years of physical and mental abuse at the hands of their fellow students. It also follows several boys and a girl who live through the torment every day. Shocking (to some, perhaps) footage of the intense physical abuse one boy receives on his bus rides to and from school are especially explicit, if not surprising for those who've experienced it.

As a movie, though, "Bully" falls noticeably short of its laudable goal. The filmmakers present a detached observer perspective that hardly works given the emotional nature of the subject material. I suppose, in a pure "journalistic" nature, this strict observation is the by-the-book method. But you're often left wanting to scream at the screen. Not just because of what's happening, but wondering why the filmmakers, present during these events, didn't at least try to ask a question or try to do something. As observers of abuse, the filmmakers don't show compassion for their subject. True, in one case, they show the tapes of an incident due to "fearing the safety" of their subject. But even this amounts to little.

When the adults and teachers featured in this movie say ridiculous things like "Oh, boys will be boys," after you see abuse that would put any adult in jail, your brain cries out for the filmmakers to interject on their subject's behalf. Maybe this was their intention, to effuse the movie with a overriding feeling of impotence, but I fail to see how that adds to the message.

Perhaps worse, they try to tie everything up in a neat bow at the end by showing many of the people they've featured at anti-bullying rallies. I feel this artifical "upbeat" ending gives a false sense of resolution for the audience. As if it's all going to be OK, because there's a website you can go to. I guess this is advocacy in the age of Twitter.

So my main complaint about the movie is it doesn't go nearly far enough.

The Message

On the other hand, the message is one of the most important in recent memory. What the filmmakers skillfully did do is show that these aren't just weird and nerdy children complaining about some harmless teasing. That adults saying "oh, don't pay attention to them," or "brush it off," show a complete lack of understanding of the problem. The severe physical and mental abuse suffered by those teased would be felonies if committed by an adult. For teachers, faculty, even police to dismiss these actions because children commit them is a dereliction of their duties as protectors.

How quickly adults forget that as a teenager, school is your world. There is no escape for those being bullied. The developing mind and rampant hormones magnify every slight, every offense, all abuse, to levels long forgotten by adults. What adults see as name-calling or something kids should "ignore" or "brush off," can't be ignored or brushed off by many kids. And it's those kids that become the fixation of more abuse because of their very inability to ignore it.

"Bully" does an excellent job showing that these kids have no recourse. Even if they have a close relationship with their parents (not a given), the parents are often helpless. Teachers, school administration, the police adopt an attitude that it's either not a big deal, or there's nothing that can be done. Cowards.

In one situation, captured in the movie, a principal forces a child who has clearly been hit in the face, to apologize to his attacker. In typical bully fashion, the larger attacker willfully, even gleefully, offers to shake his victims hand when prompted by the principal. When the victim refuses (as anyone would), the principal reprimands him, and says that if (IF!) the other boy is so bad, he should "stay away from him." The kid nearly breaks down at this point, shaking while he attempts to explain that he tries to keep away from the bully, and the bully always comes after him. Now this horrific human being of a principal says that this kid is one at fault for the situation, not the bully.

Let me change the words around to make this clear. The adult equivalent to this situation is a police officer forcing a rape victim to put their clothes back on, and apologize to the rapist for "asking for it."

Having lived through many of the exact scenarios presented in this movie, I can attest first hand to being ignored, even blamed, for the treatment I received.


While I think the movie doesn't quite attain the goal of its lofty premise, I feel it can do tremendous amounts of good. In a way, it can act as a sort of "It gets better" video for bullied children. It shows that, as bad as it is, others are going through it too. Other people know what you're going through.

Much has been made of the fact that the puritanical MPAA ratings board originally rated the film an "R" due to a handful of uses of the F-word. Despite a public outcry, the MPAA refused to budge. And therefore, in perhaps the most despicable and disgustingly ironic ruling ever handed down in the MPAA's shoddy history, the very people who need to see this movie will probably not have the opportunity to do so. The Weinstein Company has decided to release the film "Unrated" - which doesn't help matters much since most theaters still refuse to show Unrated films.

All I need to do is think back to the 13-year-old me, and try to imagine what he would have felt. Would seeing this movie change the fact that I was getting my ass kicked every day, and having that violence ignored (and by extension, condoned) by teachers? No. But it would show that there were others like me, and that I wasn't alone. This is something I mercifully found out in college, but as this movie points out, many others aren't so lucky.

This movie should be required viewing in every school. Not because there's any hope it will reduce bullying, there's too much of an ingrained culture of cowardice and apathy in American schools for that. The only hope is that it will reach some kid on the precipice, talk him or her down from the ledge by showing them there are others out there going through the same thing, and there's a bigger world out there that's a lot less crappy.

What did you think?

Movie title Bully
Release year 2012
MPAA Rating NR
Our rating
Summary An emotionally gripping documentary about an important topic, though the past you bring will be what you take from the theater.
View all articles by Geoff Morrison
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