There’s no doubt that bullying is the hot button issue of the moment. Between teen-oriented shows like Glee taking on the topic and campaigns like “It Gets Better” recruiting celebrities to speak out against it, it was only a matter of time before someone in the filmmaking community was savvy enough to jump on the bandwagon.
Maybe that’s a cynical way to look at what I’m sure is a genuine effort on the part of director Lee Hirsch to shed some light on just a few of the over 8 million yearly victims of school bullying, but one look at the film’s brilliant marketing campaign will have you questioning the altruistic efforts of Harvey Weinstein, head of the company that’s in charge of distributing the film.
Weinstein has made headlines over the past few weeks for feuding with the Motion Picture Association of America over their initial ruling that the film should receive an ‘R’ rating (because of a scene featuring some salty language) which would exclude the supposed target audience from seeing the film in theatres. Weinstein has done his darndest to keep the issue in the news, slinging barbs at the MPAA and stirring up a furor in the media which means, good movie or not, Bully has now officially become the most talked about documentary of the year.
Ultimately, rather than come up with a plan to feed the film directly into schools thus providing a free and accessible way for kids to see it, Weinstein is opting to release the film into theatres unrated. Under normal circumstances this would mean certain death for a movie, because most theatre owners will not show a film without an MPAA rating. In Bully’s case though, people are clamouring to see it because of the controversy surrounding it so those same theatres will be more than happy to make an event out of its release. It’s a first-rate PR scam that will ensure some impressive box office returns and maybe even an Oscar next February. That’s great for Weinstein and Hirsch but does Bully actually warrant all of this hype? Will it actually make a difference?
Hirsch certainly aspires to put viewers into the shoes of the five kids he chose to focus his lens on, and for the most part he’s successful. It’s almost impossible not to feel gutted by the stories of 16-year-old Kelby, a lesbian who’s routinely persecuted in the small town she calls home, or by Alex, a socially awkward middle-schooler who’s been so bullied that he doesn’t understand that hitting is not a sign of friendship. These stories and those of the other families (including two sets of parents who are active in the anti-bullying movement because their children committed suicide after being targeted), are all heartwrenching, maddening and certainly a call-to-action for parents and schools to take more notice of schoolyard abuse.
What the film doesn’t do is supply essential discussion about the whys and hows of the phenomenon, nor does it discuss valid ways that schools and parents might police and help coach kids on both sides of the issue. The film is all heart, no brain – which makes it an easily palatable doc to sit through (especially for those who wouldn’t normally watch a feature-length documentary), but not especially great for adding to the larger discussion or actually affecting the change it’s talking about.
Still, it’s a great thing to see a documentary capture the imagination of the masses and one always hopes that the success of a film like Bully will pave the way for other worthy films in the genre to cross over into the mainstream, even if they’re not really changing the world in the process.