'Bully' melted my mean, mean heart

I tend to be skeptical of the “bullying epidemic” often portrayed in the media, and in fact, in our national conversation.

That is not to say that I don’t think bullying exists. It does, from time immemorial.

Or that I think it’s OK. It is horrible, and it is not at all OK. It’s the opposite of OK. It shows the worst of the human condition.

Bully's Alex

But I do not believe that bullying is escalating in the dramatic way that “epidemic” implies, and statistics bear me out. Instead, I think bullying may be seen as an “epidemic” because of the media coverage, and  the fact that its new forms, like cyberbullying, can be hurtful, pervasive, fast-spreading and permanent in a way other forms may not be. (Sure sounds like an epidemic.)

And I think it’s possible that our collective overparenting, our inability to bear the thought that someone might be anything but kind to our exceptional children, our “everybody wins” lest someone get their feelings hurt zeitgeist, exaggerates the perception of bullying just a bit.

Which is not say that bullying is not real.

Because it is. And its very real effects–on both victims and families–are at the heart of filmmaker Lee Hirsch’s widely discussed Bully.

I present to you my frame of mind–with which most of my friends disagree–only to be honest about the skepticism with which I approached this film. I thought it would try to sell me on the bullying epidemic, which I was ready to reject, and it did no such thing.

Bully is a character-driven documentary that simply uses a series of thought-provoking family portraits to show the sometimes tragic effect of bullying on its victims and their families. And that is both its strength and its weakness.

The film is absolutely moving in its portraits of the families of Tyler, 17, and Ty, 11, in the aftermath of those boys’ suicides after long-term bullying.

It is enraging in its look at Alex, a 12 year-old who is subject to messages both implicit and explicit, from school administrators and even his own family, that if only he would man up, defend himself and learn to get along, the bullying might stop.

It is disturbing when it tells the story of Ja’Meya, who one day takes her mother’s gun on the school bus to frighten her bullies, and ends up in the juvenile correction system.

And it is hopeful in its portrayal of Kelby, an athlete who is an outcast in her Oklahoma town when she comes out as a lesbian, but shows a resilience and determination not seen in the other kids.

What Bully crys out for, though, is a companion piece, one that does employ facts and figures, talking heads and a louder dose of moral outrage. How many kids are bullied in the U.S.? What makes a kid a target? What makes a kid a bully? How should parents help their bullied child? What should schools be doing?

The stories shown in Bully are set exclusively in the “heartland,” if you will: Iowa, Oklahoma, Georgia, Mississippi. Is bullying any different in big cities?

What about cyber bullying? Bully doesn’t touch it at all.

When school administrators give Alex’s parents a dose of “kids will be kids” and calls the kids on the bus Alex rides home through torment “as good as gold”, I yearned for a Michael Moore-style interviewer to get in her face and call her a lazy liar.

And I would have loved to know more about Kelby, who discloses that she has cut herself and attempted suicide, but seems resilient and with support from a small group of friends. How has she coped?

Bottom line: the fact that a skeptic like me left Bully wanting more is certainly a testament to the power of the stories the film does tell.

Despite the flap over the film’s original R rating for language, there’s no reason any child old enough to understand its concepts shouldn’t see it.

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