There is something terribly jarring about seeing home movies of babies juxtaposed with footage of the same child much later, after years of bullying. Back then, they appear so joyful, smiley and unrestrained. Now: Quiet, sullen, beaten-down.
"I'm starting to think I don't feel anything anymore," says 12-year-old Alex, one of those previously carefree infants who now has no friends because he's "creepy," "annoying," "not normal," and a "fishface." He's not alone. Over 13 million American kids will be bullied this year. Twenty years ago, I was one of them. In my volunteer youth ministry, I've worked with several more. This problem is real, the effects are terrible. So I am thankful for Bully, a new documentary from Sundance and Emmy-award winning filmmaker Lee Hirsch.
Bully's greatest accomplishment is its straightforward and poignant depiction of the victims' reality. The threats. The isolation. The name-calling. The pain. With Bully, the national crisis is given a face. Several faces, actually. Filmed over the course of the 2009-10 school year, Hirsch features Alex but intersperses his story with those of four other bullied students, giving us various facets of the bullying spectrum. Two families mourn the suicides of their bullied sons, Tyler and Ty. Ja'Meya was arrested for taking a gun to school to scare the bullies. Kelby is a lesbian tempted to move to escape anti-homosexual abuse.
It's amazing the access Hirsch was given, capturing everything from blatant bullying to the little side moments—like one scene where a boy named Cody is asked what it feels like when he's called a faggot. "It breaks my heart," he squeaks.
Heart-ripping, emotive moments are frequent. Alex is pushed and slapped on the bus. A boy serves as pallbearer for his 11-year-old friend. A mom breaks down on Mother's Day; how can she celebrate if she can't protect her own son?
It all makes for compelling footage, but Hirsch doesn't go much further than showing the problem and stirring sympathy. There are no interviews with experts analyzing the problem or offering solutions. But as anyone who has read about or observed bullying there aren't any easy solutions. It's a messy issue that no one has figured out how to fix. Fingers are pointed at the schools and police for not acting, at individual teachers and principals who excuse abuse as "kids being kids," and at parents who are not involved. Some could even question the actual bullied students who do not advocate for themselves. As one victim's cousin says exasperatingly, "Nobody does nothing about bullying!" (Unfortunately, the only mention of the church is in the story of Kelby, who says she wasn't welcomed there because of her homosexuality.)
But when the film ends, viewers are pointed to a website, thebullyproject.com, that offers all sorts of helpful suggestions for tackling the problem—for students, for parents, for teachers, for advocates. Action steps galore populate the website; viewers don't have to feel helpless, but instead take a stand.