Cruel to Be Kind

This documentary is so graphic in its attempts to end bullying that it earned an R Rating

Bully is a moving, vital and responsible must-see documentary directed by Lee Hirsch that serves as an allegedly “controversial” wake-up call for responsible human beings to address the heartbreaking headline issue of schoolyard bullying. “Controversial” for only one reason: it has been stupidly assigned an R rating by the Motion Picture Association of America, denying access to the teen audiences who are both victims and perpetrators of bullying—the very demographic that can best be served, educated, informed and ameliorated by the civic values it teaches. A movement to pressure the MPAA to change the rating for Bully to PG-13 to benefit school-age kids failed. But the film’s distributor decided to release the doc without a rating, leaving the decision about whom is admitted in the hands of theater owners.

First, let me assure you there’s a lot to learn from this touching and tender look at troubled youth today—not endangered by drugs or gangs, but by each other.

Hirsch follows five examples of bullying over the course of one school year. The results are mostly sad, but sometimes enriched with hope, and always avoidable and unnecessary.

In Murray County, Ga., where 17-year-old Tyler Long hung himself from a closet shelf, his classmates and teachers wonder why such a terrible thing could happen to a bright, clean-cut member of their community. Tyler was sensitive, unathletic, called a geek and a fag by the other kids until the psychological damage was irreversible. “If there is a Heaven,” says his bereaved father, “I know Tyler is there—and all I can do is have the faith that I will see him again.”

But the love of a parent is not enough. In Tuttle, Okla., 16-year-old Kelby is a lesbian who was run down by six guys in their parents’ mini-van. She is also a remarkable girl who promotes peace, tolerance and understanding in her community, but it’s an uphill climb. In class, walking to school, or trying to befriend other girls in her age group, Kelby is an outcast. She’s not welcomed in church, and she’s banned from the homes of family friends. On the first day of school everyone in the room changed desks; on the basketball court nobody would play with her because they didn’t want to touch her. One of her teachers even told the class that homosexuality is a sin and gay people should be burned alive. Since she came out, her loving and sympathetic parents have been ostracized by people they’ve known for years, and Kelby has tried to commit suicide three times.

In Sioux City, Iowa, 12-year-old Alex has big teeth, puffy lips, thick glasses and a loping walk. He tries to fit in, but he’s called “Fish Face.” When questioned by his parents, he just stares into space with shame.

In Perkins, Okla., Hirsch visits the funeral of 11-year-old Ty Fields, whose death has given other students a reason to question their own sense of justice, and they publicly express their opinions.

In all of these stories, the viewer is haunted by recurring questions of morality and human integrity: How did the greatest nation of opportunity on the planet become this charnel house of cruelty? Why do our children fear their peers just because they are different? Why do we place so much value on popularity? Parents are privy to only limited information. Faculty members are overworked and underpaid. Bus drivers can’t discipline bullies after school and keep their eyes on the road at the same time. Particularly disturbing is the case of Alex, a boy so lonely that he allows himself to be stabbed, choked, punched, kicked and his face to be slammed into the school lockers because his attackers are the only friends he has!

A few things are happening to encourage reform and eradicate this mockery of civilization. In Georgia, after Tyler’s suicide, his parents called a town meeting and nobody from the school board showed up. One school system official shrugged off the tragedy with, “Kids will be kids, boys will be boys.”

Concerned citizens don’t agree. Outrage is growing over the kind of apathy that ends in tragedy. Some parents are forming support groups by using the Internet to reach out to other parents across the country. In Murray County, which gets the worst black eye in the film, activists are releasing balloons with the names of suicide victims. Nationwide, kids are taking a stand, setting plans in motion to counsel other kids who are being bullied. Movies such as Bully are educational tools that should be shown in classrooms across America. It is cinematic and encompassing, without manipulation or sentimentality.

The crisis of bullying must end before more children surrender to the agony of despair. “It Starts With One” is the motto and the rallying cry of this growing movement, and Hirsch is certainly one who is making a difference. I endorse him and his brave, powerful movie and urge you to see it for yourself. You might leave Bully with rage, but you will not leave Bully with indifference.

Bully (Not Rated) ★★★★☆