The film opens as a father watches home movies of a sweet baby boy who grows into a happy toddler before our eyes. He grows into a little boy and then a middle-schooler. As we watch the boy play and clown for the camera, his father describes him, but somberly and (we slowly come to realize) in past tense. We immediately recognize the worst and know this film is not going to soft-pedal the issue of bullying.
Lee Hirsch’s documentary Bully brings human scale to this much-discussed issue. It’s an unflinching look at how bullying has touched five kids and their families. Filmed over the course of the 2009/2010 school year, Bully opens a window onto the pained and often endangered lives of bullied kids. It’s a remarkable and intimate peek into the lives of real kids—at home and at school—in a brave exploration of various communities’ efforts and failures to confront or effectively deal with this problem.
For example, we meet 12-year-old Alex and get to see him at home with his parents, at school, on his school bus, and even at his bus stop, where neighborhood boys who should be his friends threaten him, forbidding him to even look at them. Later, Alex’s father encourages him to “punch back” at the kids who hit him on the school bus, as if the solution was an easy one. Viewers get to see the big picture of Alex’s life and just how complete and all-enveloping this world of intimidation is.
Bully documents the responses of teachers and administrators to aggressive behaviors that defy “kids will be kids” clichés. I admire the schools’ willingness to open their doors to scrutiny, but it’s frustrating to see a school principal order a bully to shake the hand of his victim. No great surprise when the bully is fine with it, but the victim flinches at the idea. The principal criticizes the victimized boy for failing to accept the “apology.” It would seem that the system—including life at home—continually puts the onus on the victim to either fight back or completely avoid contact with the bully, either “solution” reducing the life of the victim to a sad, lonely one.