Thursday, April 26, 2012

Movie Review: Bully

With all the MPAA ratings hullabaloo that surrounded the release of "Bully" it's easy to forget that before a movie needs to worry about reaching an audience, it needs to worry about being good. After a few weeks in larger markets the movie finally opened in a theater near me and I made my way down to see just what all the fuss was about.

The result was an emotionally satisfying yet somewhat underwhelming look into today's public school system. Unlike other social-issue documentaries that say "Here is a problem, here is why it needs to be fixed, here is what people are doing to fix it" bully meanders somewhat disjointedly through a series of vignettes examining the lives of real-life victims. It makes some strides in diversity, giving us an outed gay student, a child born premature and never expected to survive and a few examples of what happens when kids are finally pushed to far, whether that be retaliation or suicide.

There is one glaring flaw, however, that my friend Emily pointed out more articulately than I was able to. Every story takes place in the bible-belt heartland, so even though they talk about the universal problem of bullying, the sub-text is that the issue is limited to simple, backwoods folk. City dwellers, it would appear, are immune to the humiliation and terror that their country peers are able to bestow.
The stories that are shown are heartbreaking, but after so much talk about the content of this movie I was, frankly, expecting to be more shocked. In one scene we see what could be described as the "main" character being punched, choked and stabbed and it is effective. Beyond that, however, we mostly walk through hallways or through fields as subject talk about their torment. Most of the horrors of bullying, then, are told to us instead of shown.

Obviously, showing is hard, and I do not mean to dismiss the efforts of the filmmakers in shining a light in dark corners. I only mean to say that for all the talk, you never arrive at a point where your eyes are opened. Yes, kids can be cruel. Yes, schools often do not do enough to punish bullies and sometimes turn a blind eye. But at that point, the difficult discussion between "boys will be boys" and "book 'em Dano" needs to take place yet it doesn't. Should an elementary or Jr. High school student receive criminal aggravated assault charges? Should a victim who pulls a gun on her abusers in a schoolbus be charged with kidnapping? It's fascinating because there is not a clear answer, and it is exactly that argument that needs to take place for change to occur and exactly where "Bully" falls short.

Do not mistake my meaning, this is a great film. Sadly, where much hype is given, much is required. For a movie, it is moving and shows an exceptional display of tone, mood, and sincerity. For a documentary, it is a commendable piece of art and deserves to be seen. For many viewers, I suspect it will start a conversation that would otherwise not take place. What is absent, however, are the framing issues that would guide that conversation and the destination that we, as a society can hope for. B+

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