"Show, don't tell."
The mantra is quintessential to the art of moviemaking, but equally applicable to the realm of social advocacy. There may be a problem brewing out there in the world, a reason to rise up and take a stand, but it's near impossible to light a fire simply by telling people a situation exists. They have to witness it themselves.
Bully, a new documentary out now in theaters, crosses over into both these arenas, an insightful piece of photographic journalism that tackles an acknowledged issue rarely dealt with directly: school bullying. Executive Producer Harvey Weinstein has made it loud and clear that people need to address the harrowing claims Bully unveils — so much so, he's taken the MPAA rating system to task for trying to slap a audience-minimizing "R" rating on to the movie (Bully is currently playing unrated). His battle made headlines, sparking big name stars to back the film through PSA videos, taking to their TV shows to spread the word and promoting the film via Twitter. "13 million kids get bullied every year. Today take a stand with me," is what folks like Justin Timberlake, Katy Perry and Hugh Jackman told their followers last week, in anticipation of the movie's release. That's great, but at the end of the day, it's telling. And telling, as director Lee Hirsch reveals in the film, gets you nowhere. Seeing is believing, and Bully must be seen.
The film follows a number of middle school-aged children, barely surviving the landscape of modern bullying. Alex Libby, 12, is routinely called Fish Face – at least, that's what his parents, school faculty and every other adult figure in his life thinks. In fact, Alex is the target of violent torture, from locker head-smashing to pencil stabbing to anything physically possible within the confines of a school bus. Hirsch manages to track his subjects with an unflinching eye, and his captured footage, he later realizes, can't go unseen by Alex's parents. It's that brutal.
Bully shows, provokes and convinces through parallel accounts. We know Alex faces a number of future paths based on the fates of kids in similar situations. Tyler Long, the subject of harsh bullying, ended his life at the age of 17. Ja'meya Jackson snapped after years of aggravation, eventually bringing a gun on to her school bus. She didn'tt pull the trigger, using the weapon as intimidation, but found herself locked up in a juvenile detention center. Kelby Johnson managed to overcome hate; after coming out as a lesbian, the former star athlete suffered at the hands of prejudiced classmates — but. as she tells Hirsch, support from her family helped her survive
While the movie features graphic violence and hateful language (which landed it the infamous R rating), it's the attitudes of the adults in Hirsch's film that make Bully difficult to swallow. The Vice Principal of Alex's school is convinced his case is a "boys will be boys" situation. Hirsch follows the woman as she traverses the middle school halls, unable to reprimand bad behavior with more than a desperate plea. As she puts it to Alex's family after they seek guidance, "I wish I could say I could make it stop, but I'm not going to lie to you, I can't." Why? That's the lingering question in Bully. The film doesn't have a detailed plan on how to stop bullying, but the problem may not need one. The first step is acknowledging the problem, and even Alex's father seem misdirected and unaware when he pushes his son to fight back.
Bully feels narrowly focused, centering in on a slice of American life that makes one wonder if people on the coasts suffer from the same violent trend. But the intimacy in which Hirsch was able to photograph feels jaw-dropping enough to make a point: modern bullying has evolved from when most of the older subjects of the documentary were kids. There's no one reason for the change — a shift in parenting styles? The financial difficulties of the education system? An archaic school of thought that can't be shaken? The floodgates of information and opinions opened up by the Internet? — but Hirsch has evidence, indisputable evidence, that there's a problem that must be addressed.
The film does need the endorsement of celebrities to convince skeptics to fork over cash. Bully is not an easy sell ("Let's spend an afternoon bawling our eyes out!"). But promoting the cause, The Bully Project, can't end with a pop singer tweeting about the problem. Hirsch's film lives up to the hype thanks to its simplicity. The call to action doesn't come from the movie's marketing, but rather, from the heart-pounding reaction to watching the film.
Bully is out now in theaters, and may even be readying a PG-13 cut. Either way, it's one to see with your own eyes.