BY JENNA SIMPSON
Bullying is the hottest topic in education and parenting today, and for good reasons. As the documentary Bully shows us, bullying is prevalent and hugely damaging, and we can’t really understand what it’s like to be on the receiving end of it unless (or until) we actually have been.
Bully is a portrait of five victims of bullying, two of whom killed themselves. It is so sad. These children are beautiful, lovely and innocent. They don’t deserve the treatment they are getting—they’re only children. It’s completely heart-wrenching to see. I cried a lot watching this film, feeling so lucky that I was never bullied growing up.
As much as Bully is a portrait of victims, it is also a portrait of how parents and education administrators are failing these victims. It makes it clear that we can’t fathom what these children are going through. Some of the victims’ parents just tell them to buck up, administrators force victims to shake hands with their victimizers and nothing really changes for these kids. Bully offers us a compassionate look into what it is like to be a victim of bullying, and how good people who love their kids and their students screw up and make things worse, or at least, don’t help matters.
It’s hard to understand why bullying happens, why some kids are targeted and others are not. Unfortunately, Bully does nothing to help us understand why bullies bully. The closest we come to any answers on this question is the story of one of the victims, Ja’Maya, who snaps and brings a gun on board her school bus, and a friend of another victim who committed suicide who says he used to be a bully but he stopped because he realized how bad it is to hurt others.
It does come through in some instances, though, where these kids might have learned how to be cruel and violent. Their words, the threats they use, the descriptions of what they’ll do to their victims—all are influenced by a culture of violence that continues to become more graphic and prevalent, and in which those who win are the cruellest. For me, Bully would have been far more compelling if it had managed to find some bullies who were willing to talk about their motives and their feelings.
The most positive part of the movie is the end, where anti-bullying rallies run by parents of bullying victims who have killed themselves are held, inspiring kids to hold hands and make commitments to stand up for kids who are being bullied. I’m not holding my breath that things will change overnight, but it’s nice to see these kids try to learn some compassion for their fellows.
All in all, Bully is less a documentary than a call to action and empathy. I think I’m better for having seen it.