‘Bully’ finds its power in shame
The new documentary “Bully” applies a gloss of lyricism to the ugliness of adolescent torment. The editing lingers on the hands and face of a father whose bullied son killed himself a few years ago. A sequence or so later, the camera is inside a school bus as it fills with children, one of whom gazes yonder with incredible solemnity. You notice the clarity of the digital photography and the precision of the framing. You feel the chill of a glee-club version of “Teenage Dirtbag” that plays as each new child fades into the frame. The song is a revenge-of-the-misfits anthem that was popular a dozen years ago, and the cheering swell of the voices only heightens the bitterness of the lyrics. It’s a scene that captures the split personality of some early school experiences – innocence masking misery.
The movie remains as committed to intelligent composition, intensely watchful (if aggressively wobbly) camerawork, and patient, dreamy editing. But it’s also tethered to real lives and circumstances that the director Lee Hirsch can’t control in quite the same way he can the coming and goings of students on a school bus. The movie assembles a handful of stories of kids who’ve been harassed and terrorized by other children. They’re from different, chiefly rural and exurban areas of the country – boys and girls, gay and straight, mostly white.
In some cases, Hirsch and his crew arrive after a child has already taken his life and observe how the family has picked up the pieces, as the movie does with the Longs, whose eldest child, Tyler, hung himself from a closet shelf. In another case, the filmmakers witness for themselves the abuse of Alex Libby, a kind, taciturn Oklahoman whose face puckers as a result of his premature birth. Alex tolerates the name-calling, threats, and torture because it, at least, is a kind of attention. He comes from a large family whose spindly patriarch seems strong, reserved, and at a loss to explain why his eldest child cannot defend himself.
Another of the movie’s subjects is a highly decorated athlete and top-tier student – a 14-year-old black girl named Ja’Meya Jackson – who languishes in a Mississippi juvenile detention center for pointing her mother’s gun at her tormentors. When the sheriff of her county enumerates the charges against her and the sentences they carry (hundreds of years, he insists), you wish the movie was able to counter his gloating with facts. But Hirsch is not a journalist. He’s a crusader, and his movie wants, desperately at times, to bring attention and, perhaps, an end to a phenomenon that has mutated from a rite of adolescence to a national crisis.
Eventually, Hirsch and his team admit to finding what they see done to Alex so disturbing that they present their footage to his parents and his school. The school partially dispels the ethical discomfort of watching a movie about bullying that, until that moment, feels complicit in the abuse. The film’s observational approach does spotlight the ineptitude of certain administrators to correct the misbehavior in their midst, and it produces a few moments that manage to get at the heart of the matter.
The cameras follow an upbeat administrator as she roams the halls of Alex’s school. She pulls aside two skirmishing students, one of whom she releases after he apologizes. The other she chastises for refusing to accept the apology. The boy — his name is Cole — can’t believe his assailant was sent back to class without reproach. Why don’t you try to be friends, the administrator asks. “We were,” Cole counters in hot exasperation, “then he started bullying me.” A moment like that more than explains how someone described as sweet-natured and loving the way Ja’Meya is could also find herself waving a pistol at classmates on a school bus. Retribution feels like a way to mete out justice that is otherwise elusive and bureaucratically discouraged.
“Bully” contains some moments of real alarm and, in the school bus, one nightmarish motif. But this is a movie struggling to shape itself (three editors are credited). It has so many stories to tell and so many avenues to tread that the filmmaking jumbles and wanders and skips. The human subjects do as much testifying and speaking out and bemoaning as the filmmakers do watching. No narrative takes hold.
Ultimately, the film is less a documentary than a memorial. These snapshots and interviews aren’t meant to answer any questions the movie raises. It’s not about the history of adolescent violence or the problem of underfunded, understaffed, and stymied school systems. It doesn’t penetrate the lives of its human subjects as much as it hopes to penetrate a larger phenomenon, to stigmatize it until it goes away. So as a work of earnest activism, “Bully” doesn’t need research or great filmmaking or narrative focus, per se. It needs only the shaming power of its relentlessness and a young audience open to sharing in that shame.