A version of this review appeared in The Age, August 23, 2012.
The subject of schoolyard bullying will resonate with almost anyone who survived childhood. Still, there are numerous problems with Lee Hirsch's well-intentioned documentary – starting with the near-impossibility of getting children to behave on camera as they would when no adults are around. Reasonably under the circumstances, Hirsch concentrates on bearing witness to the victims of bullying, cross-cutting between persecuted kids from different parts of middle America. We also hear from the families of two boys who committed suicide after being bullied relentlessly, though there's nothing to say they didn't act from other motives as well.
Undeniably, the film has its moving moments. It would take a hard heart not to feel for Alex Libby, a toothy, bespectacled boy who wears his gentle nature on his sleeve. Equally, you have to admire the courage of Kelby Johnson, a teenage lesbian from a God-fearing community in Oklahoma, whose mother admits that having a gay daughter has forced her to re-assess her views of right and wrong. We see relatively little of the bullies themselves – which comes as a relief, since being tagged as a “bully” in a widely distributed film is unlikely to improve any child's social status or mental health.
The real trouble with Bully is not the messy structure or the bad directorial ideas (such as the use of a children's choir singing “Teenage Dirtbag”) but the fact Hirsch never gets past the idea of bullies as bad apples, pinning the blame either on the kids themselves or on their supposedly indifferent caregivers. When Alex's parents turn up at his school to complain, they're politely brushed off by a deputy principal. The scene is meant to prompt outrage – yet it's not hard to see why this weary-looking woman opts to smooth things over, given that everyone agrees that there's no quick fix.
In the end, Bully is scarcely a movie at all: it's closer to an Internet phenomenon like the Kony 2012 video or the It Gets Better Project. The viewer is invited to sympathise with the underdog, to be angered and uplifted by turns. Yet the issue being brought to light is never defined with precision. Is school bullying really more severe in the US than elsewhere, and has it worsened in recent years? If so, what does that tell us about the overall state of the American psyche – as reflected, for instance, by a president who feels entitled to launch drone strikes on suspected terrorists worldwide? Though Hirsch shows no interest in such questions, the best you can say for Bully is that it does make you wonder.