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“Fear” is Also an F-Word

There are two Tylers in Bully, Lee Hirsch’s often sharply affecting, occasionally heartrending documentary about the victims of youthful schoolhouse intimidation and junior-grade terrorizing of youngsters in communities around the United States. They didn’t participate in it, themselves; they’re only present through the regretful reminiscences and expressions of mourning uttered by their survivors. Both of them took their own lives after months and years of threats, rejection, and not-so-petty cruelties. Tyler Long was 17 when he died in Murray County, Georgia. Ty Smalley, a rural Oklahoma schoolboy, was 11. Part of Bully’s effectiveness is that it conveys their painful absences from the lives of their survivors.

Tyler Long’s father is first seen in close-up, pensively sad, as he recounts how his gentle, unathletic son had been at obvious risk: “I knew he would be victimized at some point.” Tyler was relentlessly picked on, subjected to repetitive minor assaults, called “geek” and “fag.” And one day, a sibling found him hanging from a shelf in a closet in his room.

Ty Smalley’s father complains with quiet dignity about the inattention of school and civic authorities to his young son’s plight, and the inability of “nobodies” like he and his wife—who sits on their bedroom floor weeping—to get help or justice. The brief sequence is as starkly dramatic as most of what can be found on screens at home or in theatres. (Smalley becomes a somberly heroic “nobody” toward the end of Hirsch’s picture.) The failure of authorities to adequately respond to the complaints of students and their families is a major theme of Bully, as it has been in other treatments of the subject.

Alex, a rather sweetly gawky and frail-looking 12-year-old in Sioux City, Iowa, doesn’t even tell his parents of most of the repeated school-bus attacks he suffers, and when confronted by them about this, he tells his mother, “I’m starting to think I don’t feel anything anymore.” And he asks her, if his tormentors aren’t his friends, “What friends do I have?” It’s a softly startling moment.

When his unusually able and articulate mother appeals to his principal, who had earlier seemed a sympathetically concerned figure, the woman says that in her observations on bus rides, the kids “were good as gold.” Hirsch has been there too, and she shows us otherwise. (Part of the problematic quality of verité-style works like this one is the question about how naturally people behave under the camera and mic’s intrusion, yet here, the kids on the bus, and others, seem to behave uninhibitedly.)

A girl in Yazoo City, Mississippi, whose cousin Ja’Meya brandished her mother’s pistol on a school bus when she felt she couldn’t take the taunts and slurs anymore, angrily tells us that parents, teachers, principals, and board members “do nothing” about such abuse. Hirsch hasn’t so much produced a report from the field as provided us with a close-up, even intimate access to the dismal, occasionally desperate interactions that characterize the widespread, evidently deep-rooted bullying in and around our schools. At times, there’s a faint whiff of Lord of the Flies.

There isn’t any expert testimony or authoritative narration, and early on Hirsch’s technique can seem crude, even with regard to camera focus. But her carefully insightful selection and sequencing of events and comments gradually build impact. The sociology of bullying isn’t really dealt with. She has set her sights on and investigations in southern and midwestern small towns and suburbs. What does this imply about more northern urban centers? (The tragic fate of Jamey Rodemeyer in Williamsville last year can’t but come to the minds of local audiences.) More saliently, the mindsets of and influences on the perpetrators is almost entirely absent. Hirsch has constructed a telling, sometimes piercingly distressing portrait of youngsters’ victimization, but it has its limitations.

Before its release, Bully was the subject of a dispute between its distributor, Harvey Weinstein, and the age-rating panel over some bad language. Weinstein got his PG-13 rating, allowing most youngsters to see it, but he must have given some ground. I didn’t hear any F-words, only one kid saying “F-word” and a couple other popular vulgarisms inherited from our English ancestors. This is good. A lot of young people and their elders, particularly school and law enforcement personnel, should see it.

Watch the trailer for Bully

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