"Bully" isn't a particularly artful documentary, but there's no question of its effectiveness.
Lee Hirsch's film actually should be called "Bullied," since it's not about the perpetrators of classroom abuse but about the victims — the geeks, the gays, the goofy kids who go through life with a metaphorical target pinned to their backs.
Thus "Bully" doesn't even address the "whys" of bullying. It's all about the emotional and psychic pain it inflicts … and it more than proves its case.
Hirsch concentrates on five cases of bullying. In Sioux City, Iowa, he hides a microphone on young Alex to record the abuse piled on him every day on the bus ride to school. Hirsch — who served as his own cinematographer — also employs what seem to be hidden cameras to capture the slaps, punches and pushing (either that or the young bullies are actually showing off for the filmmaker).
In Oklahoma we follow Kelby, a boyish gay girl who suffers such abuse not only from her classmates but from her pious teachers that her family considers moving to another town. Kelby, though, defiantly wants to tough it out.
Mississippian Ja'Maya is in juvie after finally snapping and taking her mother's handgun on the school bus to threaten her tormenters. She faces more than 40 counts of assault.
And then there are the two families trying to come to terms with the suicides of their bullied sons. To varying degrees they have become activists, calling community meetings to discuss bullying and taking to the internet to organize anti-bullying activities.
There's plenty to mourn here — and much to get angry about. The parents of the bullied kids are at a loss to be helpful. One father tells his son to stand up for himself. Good luck with that … many of these kids are bullied precisely because they are passive and socially graceless.
Worse, it becomes clear early on that most educators haven't the slightest idea how to deal with bullying, that even in the face of teen suicides they chant a kids-will-be-kids mantra and suggest that bullying is just a part of adolescent life. Between suggestions of indifference and a general cover-your-back attitude they emerge as the real villains of the film.
"Bully" provides no definitive answers. But it serves as a valuable heads up to both students and educators that bullying is not a harmless childhood ritual. It has consequences, sometimes fatal ones.