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Movie review: Documentary 'Bully' pushes its message hard

Published April 20, 2012 4:38 pm

Review • Outrage wins out over illumination in documentary.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Anyone who goes to see "Bully" will come away nodding in agreement with the movie's message that bullying is bad for the mental and physical well-being of children.

But that's an opinion that will be shared by most people who will never see the movie — unless there's some massive pro-bullying lobby being propped up by special interests somewhere.

So the question posed when watching "Bully" is: What else, besides focused outrage at a widespread problem, does "Bully" bring to the table? And the disconcerting answer is: Not much.

Director Lee Hirsch should be commended for getting powerful footage of real-life bullying that illustrates the problem with horrible clarity. Some of the strongest moments involve Alex Libby, a withdrawn 12-year-old in Sioux City, Iowa, who gets teased and threatened on a daily basis. A difficult early scene, caught by video cameras aboard Alex's school bus, shows the boy getting punched, slapped and poked with a pencil. It also shows a bully threatening Alex with worse physical abuse — using a string of F-words to drive home the harassment.

Alas, the kids are only part of the only problem. The adults also share some blame, such as the assistant principal at Alex's school, in one meeting with Alex and his parents, who declares she's been on that bus route and the kids are "good as gold." In another moment, this same assistant principal makes a bully and his victim shake hands — and, when the victim shows reluctance, lectures him that "he's as bad as" the bullying kid. Now that "Bully" has gone nationwide, one hopes this particular school official finds a new career opportunity in the fast-food industry.

Other stories related in the film — such as a spunky lesbian in Oklahoma, or a teen in Mississippi who got so fed up with harassment she brought her mama's gun on the school bus — are skimpy on details, and the movie tends to lump them together as if all bullying victims are created equal. This broad-brush approach may push an agenda, but it's not a fair portrayal of events.

The movie's most harrowing stories aren't told by the children, because those young victims aren't around anymore. In the cases of Tyler Long in Georgia and Ty Smalley in Oklahoma, the taunting and harassment got so intense that they committed suicide — leaving shocked and grief-stricken parents to come to understand, at last, the depths of their sons' despair.

By movie's end, we learn that the Long and Smalley families have become advocates for a national anti-bullying campaign — so even their pain, which Hirsch shows in touching interviews, is reduced to agitprop.

By then, it's the audience that feels a bit bullied by "Bully," as it generates more heat than light on its subject.

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'Bully'

Agenda-driven filmmaking brings outrage, but not much else, to the very real problem of schoolchildren being harassed and abused by their peers .

Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas.

When • Opens today Friday, April 20.

Rating • PG-13 for intense thematic material, disturbing content, and some strong language — all involving kids.

Running time • 99 minutes.