Every documentary needs to have a reason for existing. A documentary should shine a light on a prescient issue, offer a solution to an existing problem, or at the very least, tell a compelling story. Bully doesn’t really do any of these things. At best it’s a well-intentioned picture that anecdotally looks at the issue of school bullying and then offers up an anemic solution.
Bully follows a handful of students from high schools in Georgia, Iowa, Texas, Mississippi, and Oklahoma (apparently bullying only occurs in the South and the Midwest) between the 2009-2010 school year. Each kid and his or her family have a different story. One teenager is physically attacked each day on the school bus because he’s odd. Another teenager talks about being ostracized because she’s openly gay. A family from Georgia describes the events leading up to their son’s suicide. Bully covers at least half a dozen families, and while the details are unique to each family, the overarching portrait remains the same: teenage kids are black-hearted little monsters.
And that really should come as no surprise to anyone. Unless you spent your childhood being homeschooled, you have either been bullied or bullied someone else in your lifetime. I know I experienced being on both sides of the equation: as a black-hearted little teenager myself, I picked on kids who I viewed to be weaker than myself and was in turn ridiculed by kids who viewed themselves as superior to me. Bullying sucks, but it’s not a new phenomenon.
But tackling a longstanding problem is fine: the problem is that the filmmakers behind Bully aren’t really offering any solutions to the problem. The film consists of roughly an hour and a half of anecdotes of bullying followed by a sequence in which the parents of a few of the bullied teens put together a Facebook support group. However, while support groups and candlelight vigils may help bereaved parents, they don’t help the kid who is having his head shoved into a locker. In the end, the filmmakers cop out with something designed to feel like a heartwarming solution, but said “solution” is about as effective as the Kony 2012 campaign.
The filmmakers, however, luck upon one event that offers some insight into why bullying has been allowed to flourish in public schools. In one scene, a school resource officer pulls two boys aside following recess. One kid is noticeably larger than the other. The school resource officer tells both kids to stop fighting, and the smaller kid responds that the bigger kid had been following him around and harassing him. He complains that the bigger kid had been physically attacking him.
The school resource officer lectures both kids, telling them that they need to make up. She tells them to shake hands and apologize to each other. Naturally, the bully extends his hand; he knows that he isn’t going to be punished for being a little shit if he offers up an insincere apology. However, the smaller kid does something interesting: he holds his ground and refuses to shake hands with the guy who has been making his life a living hell.
The school resource officer then begins lecturing the bullied teen that he needs to apologize and shake hands with his oppressor or else he’s no better than a bully himself. After being pressured, the smaller kid relents and shakes hands with the bully. They head off to class where the bully will no doubt continue to torture his victim, and the school resource officer pats herself on the back for stopping a fight.
And I believe that’s the real problem facing bullied teens today. It isn’t that bullying exists. It’s that our schools now equate standing up for yourself with bullying. It’s a system designed to create victims. Bully tangentially touches upon this, but it offers up nothing of value. If you want to know why bullied kids are killing themselves, it’s because they don’t have a release valve for the pressure they’re facing. All of the prayer circles and trendy internet campaigns in the world aren’t going to relieve that pressure, and they aren’t going to send a message to bullies or the shitty parents of bullies, either.
Watching Bully, I was reminded of a quote from the movie As Good as It Gets. In a moment of desperation, Jack Nicholson shouts at Greg Kinnear, “I’m drowning here, and you’re describing the water!” That quote applies perfectly to this documentary. Bully is a haphazard description of events we all know occur every day. Does that mean it isn’t well-intentioned? No. But good intentions alone are not enough to stop bullying; they’re also not enough to make this documentary worthwhile.