'Bully': A Provocative And Essential Documentary
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Bob Mondello
Thursday, March 29, 2012 at 2:46 PM
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Bully, being released without a rating, takes a hard look at students in public schools cruelly targeted by their peers. Critic Bob Mondello says the wrenching, intensely moral, and potentially transformative film deserves to be seen by students, teachers, and parents. (Recommended)

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For the second time in two weeks, a film that concerns itself with kid-on-kid violence arrives at the multiplex amid a firestorm of studio-fanned but audience-generated social-media interest. Last week,The Hunger Games rode enthusiasm for Suzanne Collins' young-adult novels and a carefully orchestrated PR campaign to the best opening weekend of the year.

The documentary Bully, director Lee Hirsch's sensitive look at anguished kids who've been cruelly targeted by their peers, isn't going to do anything remotely like that. But a dispute between its distributor, The Weinstein Company, and the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings board (about which, more in a moment) has at least raised awareness of the picture. In fact, an online petition asking the MPAA to reconsider its rating generated more than 450,000 signatures, which suggests that someone will show up wherever the picture is actually able to get playdates. A good thing, as it's a wrenching, potentially transformative look at an epidemic of bullying in the nation's public schools.

Bully weaves together five stories from different parts of America's heartland — two about the grieving families of boys who've committed suicide (a 17-yr-old in Georgia, and an 11-yr-old in, and three about kids who are still toughing it out — a Mississippi teenager who's been jailed after pulling a gun on the kids who made her life a living hell, a lesbian Oklahoma high-schooler who's tormented not just by other students, but by her teachers as well, and a sweet, smart 12-year-old who, having been born prematurely (at 26 weeks) is now awkward enough to be singled for taunting and worse. Every morning on his schoolbus in Sioux City Iowa, he's jabbed with pencils, choked, punched, and otherwise harassed. And oddly, the little sadists doing the jabbing, choking and punching don't seem to be at all concerned about the presence of a camera.

Nor do the adults who frequently mis-handle altercations once they're made aware of them. Take the school principal who, as classes return from the playground, grabs two boys, one of whom has been tormenting the other, and tells them to resolve their conflict by shaking hands. When the victim refuses, saying he's been hit, tripped, and otherwise bullied over a period of weeks, she more or less orders him to make nice with his tormentor, then dismisses the bully so she can lecture the victim on how refusing to shake hands is just as hurtful in its way as what the bully has been doing.

The temptation to scream "No it's #%$*ing not!" at the screen will be considerable for many viewers (and of course, that'll be just fine, as the MPAA, citing six #%$*-words in the film, refused to give the film a rating that would allow any of the children who appear on screen to buy a ticket.)

Bully is now being released "unrated," which means theaters won't be required to keep those under 17 from attending unsupervised, but also means that theater-chain policies and landlord lease-clauses will prevent the picture from opening at all in many areas outside major cities.

The film is not without issues: The filmmakers understandably concentrated on the stories of the victims, but that means we don't get a real handle on what's turned the bullies so toxic. The five kids being profiled are all from the rural school districts in the middle of the country, and are mostly white (one is African American), which narrows the film's focus unduly. It's not as if urban school districts, and Hispanic and Asian kids on the coasts don't also face problems. Still, Bully is a wrenching, intensely moral film, and so potentially useful to children who are either being bullied, or doing the bullying, that the MPAA's Victorian prudery about a few instances of schoolyard language can't help appearing boneheaded.

The Weinstein Company is justifiably making hay of the fact that The Hunger Games, in which children are depicted as actually killing children, earned a PG-13, while this serious, sensitive, enormously valuable documentary was denied that rating. All I can add to the discussion is the fervent hope that any parents, teachers, administrators or students who see it will almost immediately start clamoring for it to be shown at their next PTA meeting. (Recommended) [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

This article is filed in: Movies, Arts & Living

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