Bully has every element of a modern horror story. Sympathetic, persecuted victims, sadistic monsters, and even a deceptively banal setting, the sterile cinderblock hallways and asphalt playgrounds are where its tales of terror unfold.
The worst thing about this horror movie, however, is that it is all real.
This is one of the scariest, clammiest, most skin-crawling films in recent memory, a tale of victims stuck in small, isolated towns where no one hears their cries for help, and their persecutors — both bullies and clueless administrators and figures of authority — are pitiless. Whether you experienced some form of bullying in school or not, the way director Lee Hirsch (in a manner reminiscent of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant) captures the architecture of classrooms, hallways, and cafeterias and the loneliness, fear, and dread they can induce is powerfully universal. But the children aren’t the only bullies in this deeply disturbing film; the way adults close ranks and fail to protect their most vulnerable members in Bully can’t be ignored.
Doing a noble job of looking at bullying from a variety of vantages, Hirsch crisscrosses the country to tackle the problem from multiple entry points. There is J’Maya, a Mississippi teen who is facing prison time for finally pulling a gun on her persecutors on a school bus. There’s the parents of a Murray County, Ga. teenager, Tyler Long, who committed suicide at 17 after years of bullying. The whip-smart, gay 16-year-old Oklahoman Kelby’s entire school and community has shunned her and her family for having the indecency to be different from the Bible-thumping norm. And also in Oklahoma, Kirk Smalley and his grief-incapacitated wife mourn the death of their toeheaded 11-year-old Ty, who took his life in response to bullying. In scenes almost too hard to bear, Ty’s best friend — an amiable, plainspoken kid who confesses to being a bully at one point in his life — weeps over Ty’s open casket. He then acts as one of Ty’s pallbearers. What the filmmakers have captured is extraordinary. That school systems, parents, and administrators signed the releases that allowed them and their bullying children to look as awful as they often do is remarkable.
The one thing all of these victims seem to have in common is parents whose socioeconomic situation makes them easier to marginalize. When sweet, lanky country boy Kirk argues that a congressman’s child with a bullying problem wouldn’t be swept under the rug, you know intuitively he is right. The chubby good-ole-boy coaches, sheriffs, and police officers sitting on a panel at a Georgia town hall meeting after Tyler Long’s suicide who still deny the problem are the face of soft and lazy bureaucratic inaction personified: If no one powerful raises a ruckus, the easiest thing to do is pay lip service to the problem and then do nothing at all.
The most shocking content in Bully — and the material that initially garnered the film an R rating for language — is on the school bus, where 12-year-old Alex in Sioux City, Iowa, is brutalized by his classmates. With his glasses and a scrawny gait, Alex is an obvious target, and his classmates respond like jackals on fresh kill. Watching that footage of such casual, gleeful sadism, you realize that if adults inflicted that kind of sustained physical abuse and torture on other adults, police intervention would result. But in the case of kids doing the damage to each other, there is no such legal action taken. Even his parents can seem occasionally unsympathetic. His monosyllabic father tells him in a nutshell to “man up” and his mother asks him if he likes being hit. Part of their frustration is no doubt linked to their sense of powerlessness, but the feeling that Alex is being doubly victimized at home is heartbreaking.
But in terms of monsters, that title could be reserved for people like the sugar-voiced, utterly clueless assistant principal at Alex’s school who seems to experience some sensation of do-gooding concern in drawing out tales of torture from her charges, only to do nothing with the information. She instructs a victim of bullying to shake hands with the grinning kid who routinely terrorizes him. When Alex’s parents come to complain about their son’s abuse at school, she clucks disapproval and then pulls out pictures of her own “grand babies,” essentially changing the subject. Her masquerade of gooey-eyed sensitivity coupled with utter disregard for the children in her care is nothing short of shameful. The second best thing to come out of the film after an end to bullying would be a purging of this school’s administrative ranks.
Some people may object to the film’s conclusion, which focuses on the efforts of anti-bullying activists. But in all honestly, after watching an hour and a half of children enduring relentless pain and the apathetic adults who are supposed to support them, you need that final message of hope.