By Richard Schickel
Is bullying on the rise in schools around the country? I don’t know. You don’t know. And, most important, Lee Hirsch, director of the documentary “Bully,” doesn’t seem to know either.
The implication of his film is that it probably is. “Bully” tells, in its sometimes annoyingly fractured fashion, the story of five teenagers—two of who end up as suicides—who have been victimized in this way, and all of them present sad and instructive tales. On the other hand, the reviews I’ve seen exhibit, or so it seems to me, a certain reluctance to fully embrace the movie. It has been respected by the critics, and it has many celebrity endorsements, but it has been received with a degree of reserve and skepticism. Five case studies do not make a trend, and there is no narration to fill in the larger picture. We pretty much have to accept Hirsch’s implied contention that bullying is a growing problem in the U.S. (A nonsensical “R” rating by the MPAA, a side issue we’ll come to in a minute, has not helped to clarify the issues raised by the film.)
At the center of the film is a 14-year-old named Alex from Sioux City, Iowa. He’s a little funny looking (among the kindest epithets hurled at him is “fishface”), and he is picked on mercilessly, particularly on the school bus (these buses, totally unsupervised by eyes-on-the-road drivers, seem to be a larger part of the problem than Hirsch acknowledges). Alex seems to me essentially a good kid, if possibly a trifle immature for his age. Astonishingly, he takes the view that the bullies are really his friends and that they are just “messing” with him, and that sometime they will cease and desist their egregious behavior.
Fat chance of that, we think. In any case, clueless school officials are consulted, all of who take the view that “boys will be boys.” After a fruitless meeting with an assistant principal, Alex’s mother asserts that she and her husband have been “politicianed,” and that is true not only in Sioux City but everywhere Hirsch goes. The school people’s interest is in preserving the notion that they are presiding over what seems to be a smoothly running system. Occasionally, they take notes on the problem or offer little lectures on good behavior, to which the bullies respond politely but with barely concealed indifference.
The parents do the best they can in this situation, offering the advice that has been standard from time immemorial, which is basically “stand up for yourself.” Sometimes meetings are held and school officials earnestly promise to do something about the situation, though there is little evidence that they will do anything but hold some more meetings. At the end of the film, the father of one of the suicides is holding meetings at which fine speeches are made and balloons are loosed into the sky, symbolizing the freed spirits of the lost children.
It is a gesture not without its poignancy. It is also a gesture not without its impotency. The problem with bullying is that it is an amorphous subject. It’s a problem that has been with us as long as we have sent our kids off to school, where outside the confines of the classroom they have plenty of unsupervised time to, well, “mess around” with people who look or act differently from the norm. The cure for it is, alas, to “outgrow” it, and victims and victimizers mostly do, I suppose—except, of course, for the tragic exceptions, which in some way mark them for life. Or, more tragically, cancel out their lives entirely.
Another way of putting that is that this is not a social problem subject to amelioration by 10-step programs or renewed efforts at good will and patient understanding. It is, I think, an existential problem. There are simply some people who are born to be bad—or at least radically anti-social—and some people who are born to be their victims. I met a few of them when I was kid, and so did you. The answer was avoidance—at which, happily, I was adept. And at changing the subject.
Which is what, finally, the MPAA has done with its “R” rating, based on the fact that the f-word is occasionally used in the film—not, I’m here to tell you, in any way that you’ll notice. The movie is not about language. The people in it are sometimes, in their troubled ways, both articulate and inarticulate. But these figures are all struggling to find words to describe an issue that, as I’ve said, resists anything like an easy definition. It is ludicrous for the ratings board to confine the discussion to a word that does not even register on our consciousness as we watch the film. I don’t think the movie is entirely successful in addressing the problem it is earnestly trying to raise. But the producers are correct to send the movie into the world unrated. And, we may hope, open a discussion about a system that is prissily outdated. Listen to your children and grandchildren. You’ll find they are entirely familiar with the f-word. And a lot of other words and ideas that you would prefer they didn’t know about.