I entered the theater with much trepidation…as much as I’ve had for any movie in recent memory. The reviews had me on edge thinking I was going to (a) cry my eyes out and (b) likely be traumatized for a long time to come.
The good news: neither (a) nor (b) came true. Yes, I did cry a little. You’d have to be made of stone not to be moved by the stories in Bully.
The documentary, which is not unlike other documentaries on bullying, somehow feels different. Maybe it’s the big screen. Maybe it’s the way the camera blurs in and out and shakes. No doubt, the words of the children resonate loud and clear: they have been let down. By parents, by school administration, by police and by each other.
Sundance and Emmy-award winning filmmaker, Lee Hirsch, follows the stories of five teenagers in Bully – the sweet-hearted, mild-mannered kid the others call fish face, the lesbian who is practically demonized in her small town, the honor student who snaps, and the parents of two teens who commit suicide.
It’s clear Hirsch’s plan was to make the point that behind every hurt child is, as my teen put it, a stupid adult. School administrators who refuse to listen or do much more than give lip service to holding kids accountable for their actions. Parents who are quick to let kids get away with not talking and who, while frustrated with the school’s platitudes, don’t really seem to be doing much to hold the administration’s feet to the fire. That seems to be the gist of most of the reviews. It certainly is the way the movie is skewed.
But to me, there was much more depth to Bully if you can look between the lines: the story of how bullying unfolds. The key places: the gym, lunchroom, bathroom and bus. The key strikes: punching, hateful words, pushing, stealing food or clothes or books. The key kids: eccentrics, oddballs and weaklings.
The biggest problem: these kids feel they have no voice.
These are the lessons for parents. Are we doing reality checks with our kids? Are we watching out for signs – even subtle ones like a torn backpack or bruises on their arms? Are our kids talking to us and – more importantly – are we listening? Time and time again you hear the kids in this movie say they’ve reported incidents and haven’t been heard. So they’ve learned to fend for themselves. They’ve learned people don’t listen to kids. And that’s the saddest story of all.
My hope is that you will see this movie. Not necessarily because it will start some big movement in San Antonio. But because it will open up an opportunity for a conversation with your child.
And I hope that you take your teenagers with you to see Bully. Because even if they aren’t the ones being picked on, I’m guessing they have seen kids taunted and teased, pushed and sat upon, threatened and beat up. And my guess is those bullied kids may not be going home and telling their parents. I hope that you will stress to your kids that they need to tell you or another adult at school when they see things like that happen. And they need to keep talking until somebody listens and takes action.
Bully opens this Friday, April 13, at the Santikos Palladium. As of April 5, the movie finally received a PG-13 rating. The language is a little rough, but nothing your teen hasn’t heard on his or her middle school campus (or so my kids tell me).
A note about ages: I would NOT take a child under 12 to see Bully, even a mature one. Frankly, if I were in elementary school, this movie would give me tremendous anxiety about going to middle school. For those already in 6th grade, I’d take into account how sensitive the child is… one who is easily upset and extremely empathetic might have a harder time. My sense is by the time they are in 7th and 8th grade, especially if they are in public school, they are ready to see and digest this.
If you go see it, come back and leave a comment. I’d love to hear your thoughts!