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Review: 'Bully' is story of mean kids, tortured victims, wimpy adults

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 12, 2012 - At a Beacon and Eggs event on education earlier this year, the question was asked about the toughest issue in schools today. The answer: bullying.

I was surprised, but if I had already seen Lee Hirsch’s revealing, dispiriting documentary “Bully,” I would have understood how deeply the issue of students mistreating their fellow classmates disturbs the fabric of schools every day, everywhere.

The stories that Hirsch focuses on are heartbreaking:

  • Kelby, 16, has come out as a lesbian in her small Oklahoma town, and both she and her family have been shunned ever since. She puts on a brave face and turns down her father’s offer to move to another, more accepting city, but the wistfulness in her voice when she recalls her past athletic feats reveals a lot of hurt underneath.
  • Ja’Meya, 14, took so much abuse from her classmates in Yazoo County, Miss., that one day she took her mother’s handgun onto the bus to scare her bullies. No one was hurt, but she ended up in a juvenile facility, facing dozens of felony charges.
  • The families of Tyler Long, 17, and Ty Smalley, 11, have to deal with their children’s suicides, the results of years of bullying. The movie opens with a closeup of Tyler’s father, David Long, talking about how his happy son with the infectious laugh turned into a loner who was taunted as a fag, a geek, someone who was always picked last in gym class.

Much of the movie centers on Alex Libby of Sioux City, Iowa. At age 12, he is subjected to slurs, physical violence and worse, including a torrent of F-words that almost gave “Bully” an R rating. That would have barred it from being seen by the audience that probably can benefit from it most.
Hirsch and the Weinstein Company successfully fought that decision, agreeing to delete some of the language if they could leave in the verbal assaults aimed at Alex on his school bus. The words no doubt hurt as much as the students who jab him with a sharpened pencil, sit on his head and “playfully” strangle him as he tries to sit innocently and inconspicuously on his way to and from class.

The crew of “Bully” was given unusual access to Alex, his schoolmates and the staff at East Middle School in Sioux City. The incidents and insights they were able to capture belie administrators’ insistence that bullying isn’t really a problem and students’ protestations that they were engaged in nothing more than typical teen horseplay.

The cinema verite technique works, up to a point. But unlike other recent movies that have concentrated on problems in education, like “Waiting for Superman,” “Bully” lacks much of a narrative arc. There isn’t the drama of wondering whether students will get into schools that will provide them with a better education; mostly, the movie moves from victim to victim to victim, with little sense that anything is changing.

One point that does come through strongly is how impotent school personnel are in dealing with the bullying that Hirsch portrays. One principal in Sioux City says, “Tell me how to fix this. I don’t have any magic.” When she calls the students her “special little cherubs,” the claim rings pretty false, given how ineffective her anti-bullying efforts have been.

The tired phrase “boys will be boys” is a repeated refrain that shows just how little the adults who could do something about the bullying understand or care about what changes are needed.

“Bully” would have benefited from more interviews and some sharp questioning of school officials, to let the audience know more about the solutions they have tried or the effort they are making to end the problem.

Interviews with experts in the field, though they may have disrupted the “real life” feel that Hirsch is going for, also could have helped give the issue more context and understanding. Talking to parents of the accused bullies would have deepened the audience’s understanding as well.

Besides the plight of the students themselves, the most moving part of “Bully” may come at the end, when efforts by the families of Tyler and Ty to generate awareness of the problem and support for solutions begin to grow. The Smalleys’ organization, Stand for the Silent, conducts vigils that emphasize what happened to their son – and how other families can escape the same anguish.

That kind of awareness may be the strongest effect that “Bully” will have. When Alex says, “I feel like I belong somewhere else,” he is speaking for so many kids his age, it will be nice to see if parents and school officials listen – and do something to make him feel at home.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.