Bully (2012) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Bully (2012)

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Alone in a crowdAndrew DISLIKE BannerThere's one moment in Bully that I want to salvage for another film.  We watch a child say goodbye to his best friend Ty, then the camera follows the mourning friend and Ty's father to their secret clubhouse.  It's just an empty field with some debris but the child is ecstatic, talking about how he and Ty used to go chase rabbits, how Ty never wanted him to take revenge on the kids who were mean, and that Ty was the coolest kid he knew.

What this tells us is that Ty, who at the age of 11 committed suicide because of the treatment he faced at school, left behind more loved ones than he could have realized.  What it doesn't tell us, and doubles as the maddening aspect of Bully, is how he was driven to the point where death became the answer nor does it really try.  We see his distraught dad and absolute wreck of a mother, who can't even keep herself standing when it came time to face Lee Hirsch's camera.  Their grief is real but they repeat the same maxim the other parents do, "We knew it was bad, we just didn't know how bad."

On one level it's commendable that Hirsch is willing to sit back and try to observe a volatile subject as much as possible.  But there are many moments where simple observation will not do and an opinion must be formed.  I thought when faced with not only Ty's suicide, but also the teenage Tyler, that someone would bother trying to explain why any of this happens.  Finally the moments begin to pile on which are staged or feel phony, and the film collapses.

I don't like feeling this way about a movie that has such obviously good intentions, but Bully is clunky in all of the ways that it cannot be.  Hirsch assembles the families of Ty and Tyler to talk about their experiences with bullying and also follows around some who are trying to survive it.  There's Ja'Meya, who brought a gun onto a bus to stop her torment, Alex, who is called "fish face" and hurt daily but doesn't seem to fully grasp how bad it is, and Kelby, who came out as homosexual to abuse from her school and community aimed at both her and her parents.

Highlighting the cluelessness of administration is something the film does well, but someone must have had something to contribute once the cameras were off.

Showcasing clueless administration is something the film does well, but someone must have had something to contribute once the cameras were off.

Hirsch tries to split the time evenly with the kids but ends up using Alex as the poster-child for bullying.  Alex understands some of what's happening to him and tries to pass off other abuse as people just "messing around".  It's hard not to understand why he's become numb to the bullying, one other heartbreaking moment later on has Alex and his mother trying to confront school administration about his treatment.  "Isn't it true that [bully] never sat on your head again after you told us?"  Alex says yes, but that's when they started doing other things that we see on the bus.

We never find out the response from the administrator because Hirsch cuts away right after Alex's observation.  There are many moments like this tailor-made to show the clueless administration but after such a pointed observation from Alex what was the administrators answer?  I don't know, and Hirsch edits the film in such a way that the second that it seems he might be digging into the complex interplay between administration, parents, and bullies he leaves non-existent responses.  It's clear that his subjects are suffering enough but his editing makes them seem even more helpless when he's not willing to engage the audience in conversation with what's happening.

Ja'Meya's story suffers the worst from this.  We get scant information what event made her decide to bring a gun onto the bus and Hirsch includes roughly three small moments for her to talk about her story.  The rest of her time is devoted to her mother singing, praying, and telling the camera that she barely understands what happened.  Hirsch's presentation borders on a depressing parody of someone's American Idol tryout.

I flat-out hated that moment and many others that try to be rallying cries or painful instances of faux-artistry.  Kelby's family seems poised to make excellent points about homophobia and then stops for the rest of the film to watch her wander around with friends and talk about rain.  Another moment shows Alex presented, without comment or connection, throwing rocks next to some railroads while the camera is positioned to show the vast sky and Alex alone amongst the passing trains.  He seemed bored, so I have to wonder is this something Alex likes to do or is this Hirsch's attempt at empty visual poetry?  We don't know enough about Alex to say if it's the former, and it's a selfish use genuine hurt if it's the latter.

Bully's intentions, no matter how noble, have the cumulative effect of misery porn involving children.  We don't really know Ty's story, or Tyler's, and only come close to understanding Alex.  Documenting the symptoms isn't enough, someone needs to try and diagnose this mess.

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Bully - TailBully (2012)

Directed by Lee Hirsch.

Posted by Andrew

Comments (3) Trackbacks (0)
  1. I agree with every single thing you said here. It’s all epitomized by the notion of: “I don’t like feeling this way about a movie that has such obviously good intentions.”

    I don’t either, but this movie simply was not well made.

    • Thank you for the comment Alex. While I was watching the movie I went back to Bergman (like I do way too often) who, to paraphrase, said that these young directors know how a movie should look but don’t know how to make it. Bully is a pristine production, cleanly edited, and needed to be neither of those things. For me the problem became clearest with the way the film started – showing a bus full of kids while a children’s choir version of Teenage Dirtbag played in the background. Crisp, clean, and by no means useful.

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