Thursday, May 3, 2012

Mean Streets: BULLY

Lee Hirsch’s Bully is a documentary of moving human-interest stories about bullied kids, frustrated parents, and unhelpful administrators. This is a movie about bullying, showing it as a crippling nastiness that is slammed up against a certain number of kids in each and every school setting. The people interviewed here are nice kids who’ve been picked on to a staggering degree and parents, many who have lost a bullied child to suicide. This is strong, heartbreaking stuff.

These interviews are juxtaposed with footage of bullies in action. Some of the events are clearly captured with hidden cameras, but what’s truly shocking is the casual cruelty some kids show in front of cameras that they could, in all likelihood, be well aware of. Kids are poked, prodded, and sat upon, called all manner of vile names, stabbed with pencils, and generally smacked about. Why are the victims of bullying picked on? Differences in class, race, and sexuality are obvious factors, but this isn’t a film interested in looking into the sources of this pernicious maltreatment of some children by other children, so much as it is out to gather examples of it.

In one scene, a vice principal pulls aside two kids for fighting and ends up comically scolding the wrong kid. We don’t see the fight. We aren’t privy to the reasons behind the argument. But from the words coming out of the kids’ mouths, it’s clear that the bully in the situation is the one thrusting out his hand at the principal’s request to shake and make up. Doesn’t it seem as if the kid who instigates is so often the one who is quickest to put on a humbled face for an adult? He’s the one who gets to leave while the victim is asked “Why do you let him get you mad?”

The exhortation to stand up to bullies, the better to intimidate them into leaving you alone, is the standard plotline offered up in so many sitcoms and the like. Never mind that this is advice that results in the bullied becoming a bully (or sitting forlorn with raw meat on a burgeoning black eye), this ancient conventional wisdom seems to be advice some adults unwisely insist on providing to this day. More than unhelpful, it’s downright dangerous, as shown in the story of a fourteen-year-old girl who brought her mother’s gun to the bus. She wanted to scare the bullies into leaving her alone. The gun did not go off. No one got hurt. Now she’s the one in juvenile detention facing over twenty counts of assault. (We can argue about the extent of her legal troubles, but she certainly isn’t as wholly innocent here as the movie seems to propose, especially when it comes to perpetuating the vicious cycle of bullying.)

It feels awful to be bullied. It’s terrible that teachers and administrators sometimes can’t see or won’t see problems, even in some cases exacerbate problems. But who are the bullies? Here, they’re a pure force of destruction, both mental and physical. What’s wrong with these kids? What makes a bully? This movie isn’t interested in the question and therefore is unable to come to any meaningful conclusion, supplying instead feel-good inspiration calling for everyone to just love one another, offer support, and get along. This is a glossy awareness-building advocacy doc closer to Davis Guggenheim (Waiting for Superman) than Michael Moore, but with less concrete data than either of them. A problem like this would be better served from a practical standpoint with more rigor in its research.

That’s not the point Hirsch has in mind, though. It’s a movie that goes for a gut impact and on that level it works. What’s lost in the pop culture hubbub surrounding the movie (it’s unwarranted R-rating that was the source of much Harvey Weinstein-fueled outrage before the film was trimmed by an F-word or two to scoot in under the PG-13) is the fact that, for all the success in showing the fact and impact of bullying, this is not a movie that offers any new or important suggestions or solutions for solving the problem. Nor, despite the title, does it explore the mindset of the bully. The more accurate title would be Bullied.

Still, it is a movie of remarkable sympathy and sober outrage. It’s best moment is the opening credits, a time-lapse bus ride set to a school choir’s performance of Wheatus’s “Teenage Dirtbag.” It’s a lovely one-shot piece of subtle filmmaking that makes a deeply moving and economical point about the essentially unknowable and misunderstood nature of teenage behavior beneath the façade of normality. It makes the movie’s point so beautifully and so early, that the rest of the run time is gathering often-powerful evidence for a foregone conclusion.

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