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August 6, 2012 | by  | in Arts Film |
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Review – Bully

The problem with hot-topic issue documentaries is that you’re expected to provide answers to the questions you raise. There’s absolutely a place for shining light on a problem and drawing attention to its impact; however, when your subject is as widely-debated as bullying in schools, it’s questionable what worth there is in simply generating awareness, in adding to the mass of voices in national and international discussions without offering any new insight. It’s an obstacle documentarian Lee Hirsch constantly runs up against in Bully, and one he never fully overcomes.

In terms of shining a light on the problem, Bully is a success. Hirsch focuses on five victims—Alex, persistently abused because of his appearance; Ja’Meya, a girl in juvenile detention for pulling a gun on a tormentor; Kelby, a lesbian girl in a highly conservative town; and two boys whose suicides were the result of bullying. Hirsch captures a variety of injustices and school-level failures with his unflinching camera, the most outrageous being the hidden-camera footage of the degradation and assault Alex suffers on the school bus and the subsequent footage of a school administrator denying that bus has a problem. It’s these moments where Bully excels, making the personal political and giving a face to both the problem and its victims.

That said, for a film that gives a lot of screen time to people seeking wide-sweeping solutions, Bully’s scope feels awfully limited. Hirsch confronts us with the significant impact of this cruelty, but he, like the parents of his subjects, is quick to put responsibility at the feet of the school system. He does make a convincing case for reform at the school level—it’s hard to witness the aforementioned administrator cajole a victim into ‘shaking hands’ with his bully and think she’s doing the right thing—but given the societal and legislative failures that produce bullying and deprive teachers of the resources and training necessary for deaing with it effectively (failures Hirsch alludes to but never fully engages with), his conclusion feels reductive. Bully is a rousing call to arms in the fight against bullying, but the ways Hirsch suggests we fight it are simplistic at best.


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