‘Bully’ just the start of a national conversation

05/04/2012 7:42 AM

05/04/2012 7:42 AM

After months of public and legal wrangling over what rating “Bully” should be released with, the documentary finally arrives with a PG-13 designation.

Lee Hirsch’s empathetic, provocative film features five families living with the fallout of bullying.

Two sets of parents — the Longs and Smalleys — live on with a lifetime of questions and without their young sons. Tyler Long hanged himself at 17. Ty Smalley committed suicide when he was 11. Both deaths are considered bullying-related.

The mother of 14-year-old Ja’Meya Jackson almost lost her daughter to the prison system. In 2009, the picked-on, mild-mannered teen brandished a gun on a school bus in Mississippi.

Sixteen-year-old Kelby Johnson had to leave her school after she came out as a lesbian. It may “get better,” as the smart campaign pitched to gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgender youths states, but Kelby and her family’s experience in Tuttle, Okla., underscores what bad can feel like.

In dealing with the verbal and physical ways some kids torment — even assault — other kids, this documentary contains enough rough language and a scene of jarring violence to warrant an R rating.

At least that was how the Motion Pictures Association of America and its Classification and Rating Administration saw it. So it gave it an R.

It opened in select cities in late March unrated, which meant some chains would not show it or would treat it as an R-rated film.

But the film’s distributor and the MPAA reached an agreement on a version that would defuse three F-bombs while keeping a vital (if ethics-nudging) school-bus scene in the movie.

Now that that battle has been won, we can look at “Bully” for what it says to adults about our children and ourselves. The estimated number of bullying incidents will hit 13 million this year.

If that’s true, then what are we doing wrong?

In the best tradition, the documentary leaves us with more questions than answers. The cause-effect correlation between bullying and suicide is a troubling one. While we’re trying to raise gentler souls, we also need to grapple with what makes some kids resilient and others so profoundly vulnerable to despair.

Schools – and law enforcement – don’t fare particularly well in “Bully.” Too often they seem unwilling or just plain boneheaded about exercising their in loco parentis rights and responsibilities.

Hirsch captures some positively Kafkaesque moments of clueless, even dangerous, bureaucracy. When a well-intentioned administrator makes a kid and his target shake hands, it invites an aggravated sigh from the moviegoer.

Later, Alex Libby’s parents meet with that same administrator. When she tells them she has ridden the bus their 12-year-old is being harassed on and the kids are golden, you question her sanity or honor.

It’s worth noting that Iowa’s Sioux City School District granted Hirsch permission to shoot for the 2009-10 school year. Showing how hogtied or untrained school officials can feel in the face of a daunting social problem could be considered a cry for help.

What is missing from the movie makes its title something of a bait-and-switch. The so-called bully remains too much a mystery.

What makes that kid on the bus feel so free to haul off on Alex? Is it the presence of a peer audience? Is it the lack of moral clarity about violence at home?

“Bully” is smart and compassionate about the pain of its wounded subjects.

What the powerful film lacks is insight. ”Bully” is the start of a national conversation, but not its final word.

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