More people are likely familiar with Lee Hirsch’s Bully through the controversy raised by its receiving an R rating from the MPAA than from any buzz coming out of its recent run on the independent film festival circuit. The documentary about school bullying received the restricted rating because it contained a series of f-words, a big “no-no” if one wants a PG-13. Executive producer Harvey Weinstein argued in an appeal of the classification that the film should be given special consideration due to its subject matter. An arbitrary rating which ignores context is damaging in this case, since kids should be allowed to witness the harm caused by bullying through an unfiltered lens. He lost the appeal. Cue internet outrage.
Though I’m sympathetic to his argument against the ratings board, I’m inclined to question the purity of Weinstein’s motives. The entire situation seems like a bit of a stunt (especially since he later cut the film to get the lower rating, reneging on a promise to release it unrated and uncensored), but it doesn’t really matter; pure or not, the whole MPAA brouhaha acts as a brilliant marketing strategy. It wasn’t a good move by Weinstein just because it drew more attention to the movie, but because it distracted from the fact that it isn’t very good.
Hirsch approaches his subject with limited scope. He presents a handful of case studies, including two suicide victims and a few current bullying targets. There are moments which illicit genuine emotional response; one is appalled by the bullies’ behavior, crushed by the victims’ pain, and furious with the school administrators who fail to act when incidents are reported. We’re left with no question that bullying can be extremely damaging and must be addressed…but that’s not new information, is it?
Hirsch’s depiction of school bullying is troublingly one dimensional. Sure, there’s no argument in favor of bullying, but there is more to this story than he’s willing to share. We only see things through the eyes of the bullied, but never the bullies. What is it that compels these kids to act in the way they do? Is it possible that they, too, suffer from some kind of torment? Also, every case documented in the film takes place at a public school in a small middle-American town. Surely there’s bullying at private schools or in big cities. If not, shouldn’t the film have explored how that’s accomplished? We’re left with more questions than answers, and the only thing we’ve learned is something we already knew.
Hirsch adequately identifies a very real and very important problem, but doesn’t even try to work towards a solution. I respect his desire to raise awareness, and it does succeed in doing that much, but now that we’re aware, what’s next? Bully‘s last frame directs viewers to a website for The Bully Project; maybe there are some answers there. If that’s the case though, why did I just spend 90 minutes watching a movie when I could’ve just gone online?
Rating: 2/5 Stars