Bully Lee Hirsch

Bully Lee Hirsch
After the media spotlight on its harsh rating ("R" in the U.S.) and the ensuing hype, you'd be right to think that Bully (director Lee Hirsch's new documentary) is a shocking expose of the unseen brutality happening in our schools. And, true, some of that violence is well documented.

Alex, a kind-hearted, 12-year-old boy who laughs happily as he talks about his home life, is not only pushed and shoved on his morning bus rides but subjected to explicit death threats. Startling? Yes. But it's the psychological impact – the fear, the loss of self-respect – that's the real subject of interest. The moments leading up to the bus ride show Alex pacing in the street, his nervous breathing amplified loudly over the scene. Like him, we know what will happen on the bus to school. Like many, we're powerless, or fail, to prevent it.

Bully follows victimized students from a number of U.S. states, but its story is interspersed with the families of those who turned to suicide. From its opening interview with a grieving father, the film makes clear the urgency for action. Its first half is propelled by this momentum, introducing the tragic experiences of five families and continually provoking a need for change. But as the film widens its focus to encompass a grass roots movement – one that praises the virtues of the Internet and Facebook, but ignores entirely their role in bullying – it loses focus and deflates.

You wish the filmmakers had paid more attention to their footage. In one of the film's best scenes, a school administrator makes a bully apologize to another student. When his victim furiously refuses to shake his hand, protesting that these quick make-ups never change anything, the administrator blames the problem on his defiance and poor attitude. "You're just like him," she charges. It's frustrating to watch, but the ineptitude is also played for laughs. However, there's no humour in seeing Bully similarly fumble. Whereas you wish it would charge full-speed at the issue, making people mad as hell and not take it anymore, the filmmakers opt instead to slow down and ask, "Can't we all try a little harder?"

Bully finally opens in theatres this week, rated PG in Canada but defiantly unrated in the U.S. The great debate over its rating, however, ignores the fact that, unlike the filmmakers, the young audiences being argued over have heard of the Internet and will ultimately see the film whether anyone wants them to or not.

The issue is whether Bully's tepid ending and ambiguous urging to "join the movement" will inspire viewers as much as its controversy. (Alliance)