Bully | Film review
In the film Bully, parents Jackie and Philip Libby debrief outside of their son’s middle school, after confronting Kim Lockwood about the torment 12-year-old Alex Libby endures on the bus. During the meeting just before, Lockwood endorsed Alex’s bus route as “good as gold,” with a blend of arrogance, complacency, incompetence and naïveté that’s sparked a blog devoted to quotes about the Sioux City, Iowa assistant principal.
“She politicianed us!” Jackie exclaims, exasperated, to her husband.
Some parents will feel the same way after this Weinstein Company release, which recently saw its MPAA rating reduced from R to PG-13. As galvanizing as the film’s stories are, as important as raising awareness about its subject undoubtedly is, Bully quarantines them in an America that few blue-state city kids will recognize.
The five central portraits are of communities in Georgia, Iowa and Mississippi, plus two in Oklahoma. During the doc’s 94 minutes, you’ll see the casket of an 11-year-old boy who committed suicide carried by pallbearers in cowboy hats, at a funeral attended by mourners in bright red Cardinals caps. What you won’t see: a single skyscraper, inner-city streetcorner or urban park.
You’ll hear from teachers, sheriffs, parents and students with thick accents and limited vocabularies, but you won’t see a single student from a well-to-do family brought to tears by a laser-guided insult, posted on Facebook and read on her iPhone in the restroom at a trendy restaurant.
Trendy restaurants don’t exist in Bully’s America.
Hirsch’s most gratuitously editorial treatment is of Yazoo City, Mississippi, where Ja’Meya Jackson spends most of the 2009–10 school year that Bully documents awaiting news of her fate. (The 14-year-old, pushed to extremes, brought her mother Barbara Primer’s loaded gun onto her bus. She was tackled by a classmate and taken into custody; Primer’s gun was never fired.) One shot of Yazoo’s Main Street is careful to include the old Black & White store sign still there.
Primer’s trailer home is all-white and, outside of it, she and family members hold hands, standing in a circle, praying to God and Jesus for Ja’Meya. Like so many other moments in the film, the somber, sad reality of their experience is delivered with an agenda so palpable the two cancel each other out. To call Bully “propaganda” might be a bridge too far, but does the film, as its PR materials declare, reveal how bullying “transcends geographic, racial, ethnic and economic borders”? Not quite. For young viewers who don’t see how this foreign land could be their own, it’ll be up to parents to connect the dots. Hirsch could’ve given them more help. (He also could’ve interviewed at least one of the many bullies in the film.)
It fits, then, that Hirsch’s own cinematography constantly drifts in and out of focus. In our first glimpse of Alex Libby’s school, East Middle in Sioux City, Lockwood says to a gaggle of late-running students, “The fog must've slowed everybody down!” Likewise, Bully would more quickly serve viewers by bringing clarity to how this issue affects kids regardless of class and whether the state in which they live tends to vote red or blue. The fogginess of what Bully aims to achieve—an end to violence between kids? the creation of a wedge issue?—won’t help the movie improve standards for respect in schools.
In the film’s most maturely presented chapter, Bob Johnson of Tuttle, Oklahoma, describes how he reevaluated his values after his 16-year-old daughter, Kelby, came out as lesbian. He admits that his prior worldview would’ve judged her homosexuality as a sin. “You feel that way until you’re in that situation,” he explains, “until it’s personal.” By giving broad demographic swaths of America license to view bullying as something only experienced by an “other,” Bully pulls its punch.
Bully opens April 13.