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"BULLY"
(2012) (Documentary) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Documentary: A look at bullies and bullying among kids and the effects that has on them and their families.
PLOT:
The documentary explores the problem of bullying among kids, including 12-year-old Iowa boy Alex who's picked on because of the way he looks, and 16-year-old Oklahoma teen Kelby who's been ostracized since coming out as a lesbian.

There's also 14-year-old Ja'Meya who's currently in juvenile detention facing many serious charges for bringing a handgun onto a school bus to deal with those bullying her, and several parents of children who committed suicide to escape their bullying.

Finally, there's assistant principal Kim who alternates between occasionally stepping forward to deal with the issue when not otherwise turning a blind eye toward or diminishing the severity of the bullying at her school.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
There are various definitions of the word "bully," but for argument's sake, let's use the first ones that pop up using a Google search. For the word used as a noun, it's defined as "A person who uses strength or power to harm or intimidate those who are weaker," and for the verb, it's "Use superior strength or influence to intimidate (someone), typically to force him or her to do what one wants."

I'm no expert on the history of the word in either form, but can state with relative assurance that both meanings have been around pretty much since the dawn of mankind. At minimum, I can certainly attest it's occurred since the early 1970s where -- as a small boy with thick glasses, curly hair in an era of straight locks and the last name of Judy -- I had my fair share of encounters with such kids.

But none of that should come as a surprise since -- and despite our higher levels of intelligence, civilization, laws and such -- we're still basically just highly evolved animals. And in most of the animal world, especially among the males of pretty much any given species, dominance over others pervades in the usual "survival of the fittest" mode.

Granted, for animals, the turning of others into subordinates is all about the mating game (and, subconsciously, passing down one's superior genes to the next generation and so on), and I'm sure the same was true for humans way back when. But with civilization came a different way of procreating and thus the built-in disposition to force others into a lower social ranking ended up misguided. And so it continues today, albeit morphing into something completely different -- and potentially more damaging and certainly more far reaching -- with the advent of social media.

All of that would have been an insightful way to look at and examine the subject matter in the movie "Bully," a documentary some of you may have heard about considering the controversy regarding its movie rating by the MPAA. A look at contemporary bullying, the pic has some harsh language in it, and thus initially received an R rating.

But the filmmakers and especially master promoter Harvey Weinstein objected, saying it's an important movie about the subject matter that kids should be able to see without the need for a parent or guardian in tow. They stood their ground and the film initially went out to a few markets unrated, but now has received a new PG-13 rating thanks to the silencing of several (but not all) of the F-bombs dropped during the 90-some minute run-time.

Now that the controversy is over, we can focus on the film itself and its look at the subject matter in question. As directed by Lee Hirsch, the pic begins with a father commenting on his 17-year-old son who took his own life due to being bullied, and then segues between that story and several others featuring various physically and/or psychologically tortured kids.

Is the footage maddening? Yes indeedy, particularly when some of the parents don't grasp the severity of the situation and especially when some of the school authority figures don't seem to care or have uneven responses to dealing with such matters. And once some kids and parents eventually stand up for what's right, some of the footage has a stirring emotional quality to it.

But here's the problem. Actually, there are two. For one, and looking at the pic with a critical eye, it just seems bizarre that many of the people in the film don't even seem to notice, let alone care, that a camera is filming their behavior. I'm not referring to those who obviously agreed to let the film crew follow them around.

No, I'm talking about some of the bullies who don't even look in the direction of the camera (or stranger holding it) and don't seem to mind being caught in the act. Even bystanders don't appear to glance in the direction of the filmmaker, making one ponder if they had some sort of hidden recording device or, potentially more troubling, were told to ignore it and maybe even "act" for it. I have no proof that anything was fabricated for effect, but it just seems odd to witness such nonchalance and then ponder that most of them and/or their parents signed waivers to allow their faces to appear in the final product (I only saw one whose face was prominently blurred out in post-production).

That aside, the bigger issue for me is that the film doesn't offer an explanations for such behavior (as I crudely attempted above) or any real solutions. I can only imagine Michael Moore helming such a pic (surely he must have been bullied as a kid) and getting personally involved in making a change. Better yet, the likes of Davis Guggenheim ("Waiting for Superman," "An Inconvenient Truth") could have done wonders examining the subject.

Instead, there's no narration and only a few onscreen titles to identify the subjects and their locations (along with one title card that says the crew became so concerned about one kid, Alex, that they showed their footage to his parents so that they would do something). Accordingly, we're left to simply observe what occurs.

Yes, the pic is important for many to see as it will (or at least should) open lines of communication about the troubling issue. But it ends up being akin to a medical film that shows the effects of an infection, but offers nothing in terms of explaining why it occurs or ways to treat it.

Just like most of us aren't medically trained, the vast majority don't have any trained knowledge about how to fix this problem, and such material or at least a nudge in that general direction would have gone a long way in terms of making the film far more powerful and effective. As it stands, and viewed solely as a documentary, "Bully" rates as a 5.5 out of 10.




Reviewed April 5, 2012 / Posted April 13, 2012


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