Friday, April 13, 2012

Bully: Riveting advocacy cinema

Bully (2011) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for dramatic intensity and fleeting profanity 
By Derrick Bang

The most perceptive comment comes from the best friend of 11-year-old Ty Smalley, who took his own life rather than continue to endure continued torment at the hands of his schoolyard persecutors.

“If I were king of the United States,” the grieving, angry boy declares, “I’d do away with popularity.

Poor Alex, at 12 having not the slightest notion how to attract friends, finds
that his efforts aren't merely rebuffed; they make him the target of repeated
physical and verbal abuse at the hands of tormentors who've come to believe
that they can continue to get away with such cruel behavior ... for the simple
reason that nobody ever stops them.
“Because then everybody would be equal.”

If only it were that simple.

Filmmaker Lee Hirsch’s searing documentary, Bully, is a raw, almost invasively intimate portrait of five families, five children and the long-established pattern of youthful harassment that has made their lives a nightmare.

Two of the children were shadowed during the course of a school year, sometimes interviewed at random moments, sometimes merely observed. One is profiled from within the confines of a juvenile detention facility. Two aren’t able to speak at all; the distraught parents must supply a sense of their absent sons.

Ty Smalley shot himself in May of 2010, on the same day he was suspended from school ... for fighting. The superintendent of Ty’s Oklahoma school insisted, when interviewed, that there was “no indication” that any bullying had occurred.

Tyler Long, 17 years old, hanged himself in October 2009, after years of abuse from high school classmates. His parents, David and Tina Long — who receive considerable face time in Hirsch’s film — have sued Georgia’s Murray County Schools and high school principal Gina Linder in federal court, claiming that school officials knew about the harassment and failed to prevent it.

The school officials not only deny their failure to act; they insist that no bullying took place. Their lawyers claim that Tyler’s suicide was prompted by alleged “personal and psychiatric problems” and the fact that he suffered from Asperger’s, neither of which is mentioned in this film.

(From the outside looking in, this sounds both disingenuous and tone-deaf, carrying the stench of a “blame the victim” mentality. It’s also ironic: Murray County officials are arguing in favor of a scenario that would have made Tyler far more likely to be targeted for abuse.)

The lawsuit, proceeding as these words are typed, is too current to be included in this film, but an earlier incident is quite damning: The Longs held a public forum on bullying in 2010, making a point to invite Murray County School officials. None showed up, and Hirsch’s film crew was present to note their absence.

Judging by the number of concerned and sympathetic parents who do pack the hall — and a distraught public statement made by a young boy quite clearly a target of hazing himself — Tyler Long’s situation was, and is, by no means unique.

Ty and Tyler aren’t in a position to explain the despair that led to their final act; we see only their younger, happier selves in photos and home movies. The situation is entirely different with 12-year-old Alex, an ungainly, socially awkward boy beginning the seventh grade at East Middle School in Sioux City, Iowa. He wants to fit in; he tries by hovering near classmates he arbitrarily hopes might be possible friends.

At best, he’s ignored; watching him stumble from one end of the courtyard common area, during recess, is heartbreaking. At worst, he’s taunted, tormented, punched, shoved and otherwise brutalized, both in school and in particular on the school bus; it looks and feels like wild animals culling the weakest member of the pack.

One bus sequence, by the way, includes the viciously hurled epithets that initially resulted in this film’s R rating (subsequently modified, after considerable hypocritical hand-wringing by the MPAA, to a PG-13). It’s easy to see why Hirsch and the Weinstein Film Company fought like hell to retain the language; it’s essential to the scene’s impact.

The footage is shocking, all the more so because the children seem unaware of — or unconcerned by — the camera’s presence. Hirsch explains, in the film’s press notes, that because his crew spent so much time at and around the school, they became like wallpaper ... on top of which, the kids had been bullying Alex for so long, and with such impunity, that they had no fear of consequences.

Hirsch also was careful to avoid any appearance of making Alex a key subject; the filmmakers shadowed lots of children, in numerous classes and at various school events, to conceal their interest in him. Alex emerges as a “star” only after the magic of post-production.

Worst of all, Alex downplays his persecution to the two people — his parents — in the best position to help. “The kids are just messin’ with me,” he continually insists. The camera’s unforgiving eye catches what Alex’s father fails to perceive: He’s idolized by a son too ashamed to admit any weakness. Dad comes across, in this scene, as an oblivious jerk; I’m impressed by his willingness to allow the footage to remain.

The vice-principal at Alex’s school fares even worse, when finally confronted by the boy’s angered parents; you simply won’t believe the insulting platitudes and bone-stupid remarks that spill from this woman’s mouth.

Hirsch learned of 14-year-old Ja’Meya after reading about a young man who made headlines after safely disarming a girl who had brought a handgun onto her school bus in Yazoo, Mississippi. What, Hirsch wondered, had prompted her to do this? Easy answer: Ja’Meya had snapped, finally fed up with the abuse she suffered during each day’s hour-long bus ride to and from school.

The girl is a little bitty thing on camera, her owl-like eyes reflecting pain, humiliation, fear and the shattering knowledge that she has let her mother down. Hirsch, who also manned the cameras, goes in for unforgiving close-ups; Ja’Meya’s anguish can be read, like a road map, in her haggard expressions.

She was, her mother insists, a quiet girl and a good student: a winner of medals. But for dumb luck, she could have become as notorious as the Columbine killers.

Hirsch knows how to set up a story: It’s telling to note — despite the local sheriff’s insistence that nothing justifies threatening children with a gun — that the 45 felony counts against Ja’Meya were dropped, and she was allowed to “serve” a sentence of observation at a psyche ward. Extenuating circumstances, perhaps?

My hero, however, is 16-year-old Kelby, a former all-star school athlete whose life became a daily hell after she came out as a lesbian. The core problem: Her school is in the small, Bible-belt community of Tuttle, Oklahoma. Her parents offer to move the family to a larger — read: more accepting — community, but Kelby refuses, determined to remain in order to “change a few minds.”

Kelby is articulate, resolute and every inch a fighter ... but confronting vicious, institutionalized, sanctimoniously Christian discrimination is a tall order for a teenager. She matter-of-factly recalls the morning on the first day of a new term, when she entered a packed classroom, took a seat ... and then watched as everybody at an adjacent desk moved elsewhere, leaving her exposed as a human island.

Clearly, that classroom teacher did nothing to prevent this group behavior, let alone turn it into an instructive moment. Clearly, that classroom teacher tacitly approved of what her other students had done. Words cannot convey an appropriate level of anger; Hirsch’s camera merely pauses on Kelby’s face, as she reflects back on that humiliating moment.

Kelby’s father, by the way, is an even bigger champion: living proof that Kurt Hummel’s dad, on TV’s Glee, isn't too good to be true. Despite coming from an environment of church services and Sunday School lessons that portrayed homosexuality as a sin, Kelby’s father stepped up, reassessed his own views, and suddenly found most of his friends and associates — who’ve shunned him and his wife, as well — wanting.

His words, his very bearing, were applauded during Tuesday evening’s preview screening. And rightly so.

My one complaint concerns this film’s unfortunately narrow geographical window, which strongly suggests that school bullying is confined to under-educated small-town families, particularly in the Deep South. That’s obviously ridiculous, and Hirsch would have done well to expand his focus into at least one big-city school west of the Rockies or east of Ohio.

The film concludes as Kirk Smalley teaches himself “the Internet” and becomes an activist, launching the anti-bullying organization Stand for the Silent, and coordinating a series of vigils to call attention to a crisis that is expected to afflict more than 13 million American children this year.

“It only takes one,” the final text crawl insists: one bystander to defuse a hazing incident before it spirals out of control. That’s certainly true: If children were raised to believe that bullying simply isn’t “cool,” the problem would all but vanish. Bully, therefore, stands in the pantheon of imperative advocacy cinema: It has the power to effect change.

But be advised: It is very, very hard to watch.

1 comment:

  1. An excellent review of a powerful film. I just wish it had more to offer by way of solutions...