Halfway through my screening of Bully, I glanced across the living room, saw a photo of my sons, and started sobbing.
It was the most guttural reaction I’ve had to a film all year. Maybe I was imagining them having to endure the vicious social obstacles presented in the film. Probably I was moved by the hardships suffered by the parents and children who open up for filmmaker Lee Hirsch’s cameras.
More than anything, though, I just wanted them to come home from school so I could hold them. Forever.
By now, you’ve no doubt heard about Hirsch’s Bully, a ripped-from-the-headlines documentary that recently made its own headlines when The Weinstein Company challenged the MPAA over the film’s R rating … which would’ve made it harder for theater chains to screen the film for the teenagers who might benefit from Bully’s many messages.
The dust has since settled, and Hirsch’s film is expanding to more theaters with an audience-friendly PG-13 rating. Yet while teens now can see Bully without being accompanied by a parent or guardian, don’t you dare let that happen. For parents, Bully can be as terrifying as The Exorcist. But it needs to be seen, together, and later discussed.
So, let’s take a stand and figure out when you can watch Bully with your kids.
Red Flags: “Tell me how to fix this. I don’t know. I don’t have any magic.”
It took 60 seconds for Bully to deliver its first emotional wallop. As the film opens, a red-eyed, emotionally fatigued father recounts his son Tyler’s struggles with bullying. Though Hirsch shows us footage of adolescent Tyler Long -- who’s as giddy and goofy as every young kid should be -- the dad speaks of his son in the past tense. And right off the bat, my heart starts to hurt. Like a tangible, physical pain.
Bully is a horror movie for parents. I prepared myself for the worst, and still wasn’t ready. Who is, when fellow parents recount the loss of a child, or lament the terrors their awkward kids face in the Thunderdome that has become the American public school system? Brace yourself for the end of the movie, where Hirsch – uncomfortable with being the innocent bystander his documentary needs – shows footage to the parents of bullied pre-teen Alex so they can understand what their precious son endures on a daily basis. Alex’s concerned mom asks her son if what these kids are doing to him makes him feel good. “I’m starting to think I don’t feel anything anymore,” Alex responds, and my heart rips in two.
The irony of the Bully ratings “controversy” is that the MPAA’s decision reportedly was meant to protect children from the language spoken in Hirsch’s film. In fact, it’s the parents in the audience who’ll need just as much protection and support.
The red flags are plentiful in Bully, but they need to be recognized and addressed. That’s the point of the film. Yes, there are curse words in Hirsch’s documentary. F-bombs are dropped by aggressive, wayward teens making short-sighted threats because they don’t know any better. I hate to call it normal, because normal’s the wrong word. It isn’t shocking, let’s just say that.
Parents still might be surprised, however, at how angry kids can be when they talk to one another. Why do they do that? That’s nothing, though. Wait until Hirsch shows you how the rules of society have broken down on your average school bus.
Let me just say that Bully should be viewed together by parents and teenagers, and possibly with middle-schoolers. But I think it’s going to be more of an eye-opener for mom and dad. You might think things have gotten worse since you went to school and possibly were bullied. You have no idea.
Bully emphasizes the current fascination with sexual proclivity. A kid’s reputation can be made or broken based on whether their peers think they are gay or not, regardless of what’s the truth. It also addresses the problems modern teens face, and parents need to ask if they want their kids to learn what a “cutter” is (if, in fact, they don’t already know)?
I’m afraid most of the Red Flags in Bully will be “old hat” to today’s teenagers, which is why the ratings brouhaha always was a farce to generate valuable publicity. From that angle, I can’t fault the Weinsteins. Bully isn’t meant to educate the teenage audience as much as it’s supposed to wake up the older crowd so they can stand up and hopefully do something about it. And tell me you aren’t moved as a father recounts how his bullied son had “a target on his back.” Because I was ready to board the nearest school bus and start swinging at suspicious-looking punks.
That’s not advised. So what can we do? Let’s discuss in the Green Lights section.
Green Lights: “I just keep thinking that maybe I’m the one that is in this town
that can make a change. I don’t want them to win, and I don’t want to back down.
Maybe all it takes is for one person to stand up.”
Bully doesn’t have all of the answers. But it raises the tough questions, and it begs you to try and answer them with your family.
Five stories play out over the course of Hirsch’s doc, all with compelling elements. The story of Tyler Long, who took his own life after enduring abuse, cuts to the heart of the bullying issue in the age of cyber-torture. The movie’s can’t-miss scene involves Tyler’s parents presiding over a town meeting, where they lash out at so-called authority figures who force-feed them red-tape jargon about “trying to do better.” The grieving parents are sick of hearing such pandering lines, and the scene makes you realize that you should be sick of hearing them, too.
“Tell someone” is the movie’s strongest takeaway, even if Hirsch seems to accuse school administration of rarely doing enough when confronted with serious problems. Bully is at its best when the people captured find strength and solidarity in their families, their churches, their communities … and in the movies. The documentary acknowledges that it exists to create conversations – a self-serving purpose that could open lines of dialogue and save a life.
Bully does what it can to make a difference. In an aforementioned scene, Hirsch shows Alex’s parents footage of their son being bullied, and they finally begin addressing the problem. It doesn’t matter if they didn’t do enough for their boy prior to that point (and I was angered when he was being verbally picked on by his younger sister), they’re aware of the issue now and helping Alex out.
If my boys were old enough, I think I’d want to talk to them about when it’s OK to fight back. Bully touches on a sobering story of young Ja’Meya, a bullied teen who brings her mother’s gun on a bus for retribution. No one is injured, but Ja’Meya faces legal charges. Tyler Long’s parents would take that over the loss of their child. But even Tyler’s suicide leads to a social project for keeping Tyler’s “voice” alive.
Bully nails a distinct contradiction that needs to be discussed. It touches on the dangers of the Internet and the immediate influence a cyber-bully can have. But it also goes one step further in its later stages to address the power of the Internet when uniting families who feel alone when struggling against this fight. Take the time to explain the power of the Internet to your children. It needs to be a tool, not a weapon.
Bully spoon-feeds its audience with difficult lessons. But it isn’t always downbeat, and your conversations with your children shouldn’t be heavy handed. At one point in Bully, Hirsch revels in footage of one of his interview subjects -- picked on for allegedly being gay – as she socializes with close friends in the rain. It’s Hirsch’s way of saying, “It gets better.” Now we just need to tell that to as many kids as possible.
Much as it pains me to admit this, the MPAA got it right … eventually. By keeping it real, Bully director Lee Hirsch limits the discussion regarding school-age bullying to middle-school kids and up, so the PG-13 rating is fairly accurate. Parents of kids in fifth and sixth grade should take the time to watch Bully together, then carve out time to talk about the issues raised by the film. Open lines of dialogue are far more crucial than any column or review any of us could write about Hirsch’s powerful film.
But as much as I wanted to share this films with my 8-year-old son, I’m thrilled to say he’s not ready for it … and he doesn’t need it. We talked about bullies at his school (he claims there aren’t any), and I let him know that the door was always open for him to come tell me anything.
Because I’m not opposed to boarding some random bus and putting a middle-school bully in his place.
If you’d like to read previous entries in the "When Can I Watch That With My Kids?" series, click right here. Some of the films covered: Star Wars, Back to the Future, The Goonies, Hugo, The Princess Bride, The Monster Squad and Elf, to name just a few.