There are only a few documentaries that have truly changed the landscape of the subject they capture and explore. Hopefully, Bully will do for children in the schools what An Inconvenient Truth did for our environment. Using a mostly objective, fly-on-the-wall approach, Bully captures the horrors of the state of bullying in the United States and its affect on victims, their families, and their communities.
Bully follows the lives of several middle and high school students and parents who are currently victims of bullying or have been affected by bullying in the past. The students in question are targeted due to their looks, their sexual orientation, or simply because they choose lives as loners. The documentary captures events and explores heart-breaking stories to fashion a quilt that personifies the currently state of bullying in American schools.
One of the strongest statements made in film is from Alex after the interference between the filmmakers. His parents thought the most difficult moments in Aliex's life were the weeks after his pre-mature birth, a dozen plus weeks early. They will soon learn that Alex's thirteenth year of life is much more difficult. During the progress of the filming of the documentary, the filmmakers were concerned about the growing violence others were inflicting on Alex. Alex's mother, shocked at what she as seen, asks Alex about it. Alex simply says: "I don't know what to feel anymore". It is the utmost perfect statement to explain the psychological damage a victim of bullying will endure.
Interference from the filmmakers is often times a faux-pas in fly-on-the wall documentaries. Throughout the film, the film maintains this hands-off approach with few expositive titles, and a narrative driven by captured events and voice-over commentary by victims and family members. When the Bully filmmakers showed Alex's mother the footage of her son's torment, they changed the progress and narrative. Is it a failure to maintain the objective lens, or did they act as humanitarians who saw a potential threat to Alex's safety? Then again, the filmmakers are not exactly hiding themselves. Much of the torment is happening with the filmmakers within distance of the events. The filmmakers are exactly what the casual observers to bullying should be doing, speaking up and acting on it.
Bully also examines the reactions victims take. Ja'Maya, who has been verbally bullied for quite some time at school and on the bus, smuggled her mother's gun onto a bus, just in case those verbal threats became reality. She was charged for 44 felonies. The blow-out afterwards questions how far bullied teenagers go to protect themselves. However, Ja'Maya's predicament may be overshadowed by that of Tyler Long and Ty Smalley, victims of bullying who took their own lives. These boys did not have the filmmakers capturing the events to be used as evidence, which really begs to question how much did the filmmakers save Alex's life.
Bully also made quite a controversy when the MPAA initially gave the film an R rating. An R rating prevents any person under the age of 17 in the United States to see the film without a parent or adult. The rating is due to a scene in which a bully uses the explicitive "fuck" more than four times. The MPAA has been very specific in the past the four is the magic number between a PG-13 and an R. In the past, the MPAA has been more lenient on films with a more educational stance, but then again, they tend to always be more lenient with with studio pictures than independent films. Bully is distributed by The Weinstein Company, a independent film company that has defended NC-17 ratings several times before, including Blue Valentine and The King's Speech, just to name a few. The MPAA's rating deliberations is a capricious process that the TWC knows how to battle and also how to use the controversy for their marketing advantage. In the end, Bully only gained more traction.
Teen Suicide and bullying are two growing epidemics that certainly coincide with each other. My Suicide (now titled Archie's Final Project) was a fictional first-person perspective of a teenager who, based on his situation at home and the bullying at school, made a shocking announcement that he will commit suicide. Bully successfully explores the quiet desperation these victims have in dire situations. The film does show educators who know how to reduce the flares in behavior, but they never go further to actually solve the long-term problem. The film paints a multi-layered picture that explores how little anyone is in control of bullying today. However, mentioned above, it is the casual observer that must make the stand. It may not be obvious, but Bully is effective in explaining that is third-parties who must objectively relay unjust behavior in order for lives to be saved.