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'Bully' review: Increased awareness is only the beginning

Matt Pais, @mattpais

RedEye movie critic

April 12, 2012

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**1/2 (out of four)

Few understand Sartre’s “Hell is other people” line like kids who find themselves on the wrong end of bullies’ aggression. I know what it’s like. You know what it’s like. If you went to junior high, chances are pretty good that, at one time or another, you felt victimized by someone who picked on you to make themselves feel better.

In this often difficult-to-watch documentary previously titled “The Bully Project,” the very serious issue of bullying in American schools gets a human face. To name a few: In Sioux City, Iowa, it’s Alex, 12, who’s called “fish face” and considers his tormentors his friends so he doesn’t have to ask himself how many actual friends he has. In Tuttle, Okla., it’s Kelby, 16, who since coming out has been the victim of hate speech from teachers and caused her parents’ friends to stop acknowledging them. In Yazoo County, Miss., Ja’Meya, 14, sits in a juvenile detention center, her punishment for bringing a gun to school (no shots were fired) when she just couldn’t take the bullying anymore. The Longs of Chattsworth, Ga., and the Smalleys of Perkins, Okla., both know the tragedy of losing a child to suicide after intense bullying.

This is a nationwide problem, and plenty of statistics and informed opinions exist on the subject. (Not as informed: The dopes at the MPAA who thought this doc deserved an “R” rating, eventually relenting to “PG-13” after a national protest and a few removed F-bombs.) It’s a shame director Lee Hirsch focuses “Bully” only on anecdotes and not a broader view of what’s happening and how anyone has made progress to combat the problem. (That is, if anyone has. I’d like to think so, but I don’t know.)

The footage here suggests a steep slope to climb; administrators shown do everything they can to dismiss the problem and skirt responsibility, as if kids simply can’t be disciplined and parents, not schools, are solely accountable for what kids do throughout the day. Seeing these reactions should inspire nausea in anyone watching.

“Bully” should have mentioned Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” project and done more to address the bullies themselves. Sometimes the film feels like a feature-length episode of MTV’s “True Life.” That still counts for a lot, though. The bullying epidemic won’t go anywhere without awareness and action, and this doc will hopefully succeed in both of those areas.

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 7:30 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com. @mattpais