It’s harrowing to look into the eyes of parents who’ve lost their child to suicide. It’s disturbing to hear tales of the community-wide ostracizing of a teenage lesbian in a small Southern town. It’s heartbreaking to watch an awkward, maladjusted 14-year-old tormented and physically assaulted by his peers. Lee Hirsch’s documentary succeeds at raising the ire of its viewers with heartstring-tugging anecdotal evidence of bullying’s tragic aftermaths.
Shown in classrooms, Bully could be an effective, crucial teaching tool; as a film, it feels incomplete, adept at stirring emotions but inadequate at presenting a coherent argument. Part of the problem is the all-encompassing word “bullying,” which even in this handful of cases stretches from name-calling to physical violence to homophobic teachers. At times, it feels like the film’s thesis statement is shared with one pre-teen’s desire to be “King of the United States,” when he can outlaw popularity and ensure everyone’s equality.
Where Hirsch nails his targets is in capturing clueless, ineffectual school administrators, who respond to very real parental concerns with baby talk and pictures of their grandkids. These officials, entrusted with the welfare of scores of children, are woefully unable to differentiate between “kids being kids” and brutal harassment. No matter how heartfelt and well-intentioned, Hirsch makes the same mistake, failing to recognize the degrees of difference between rites of passage and intolerable tragedy.