Sunday, April 1, 2012

Bully: Powerful, but one-sided, lacks depth

Inexplicably, the MPAA gave "Bully" an R rating. After watching the film, I felt like the people who would benefit the most from watching this are kids. Some people say parents should watch it with their kids, and I suppose that's true too, but the people who will understand this the most are kids themselves. Every kid at some point gets bullied, or at least gets in some type of altercation when they're in school. Compared to the kids depicted in "Bully," I had it easy. Still, I could not help but feel for a kid like Alex or Kelby. The film peaks into the lives of a couple of bullied teenagers and pre-teens and it also looks into the parents of all of them as well as parents of kids who committed suicide due to bullying.

There's David and Tina Long, whose son Tyler committed suicide at age 17. Since then, his parents have made it their mission to take on the bullying issue that runs rampant in schools. They try to make it the problem for the people who run the school. Throughout the film we also see the Assistant Principal who works at Alex's school whose ineptitude and naivete is really quite astonishing.

There's Kelby, a 16 year old from Oklahoma who has been completely ostracized due to her sexual orientation. Hearing about the way kids and authority figures treat her, it's just terrible. And then there's Ja'Maya, a girl from Mississippi who retaliated from bullying by whipping a gun out on the bus and threatening to shoot the bullies.

The film mostly looks into the life of Alex, who unfortunately is an easy target for bullies on the school bus. It's not only because he looks the part of a "typical geek," but he genuinely seems like he does not know how to handle it. He's so gentle and fragile and he just takes it. He never does anything about the bullying, never tells his administrators or parents about it unless really pressed upon. It takes the filmmakers showing footage from the school bus to the parents to make them realize just how terrible it is for him. Watching the administrator handle it in inept fashion will frustrate you.

But the movie is mostly frustrating because the fillmmakers presents this problem without offering any solutions. Each character seems to be in a perpetual state of hopelessness. Ja'Maya had charges against her dropped and was free to go home by the end of the movie, but what'll happen to her once she goes back to school?

The filmmakers treat their subjects in such a precious fashion. The most revealing and touching parts of the movie are when they spend time with a friend of one of the children who committed suicide and he shows them the area in the woods when they used to hang out. He talks about how he used to bully kids back in 2nd and 3rd grade, but he realized he was being a jerk and he stopped. It was a revealing, touching moment and it begs the question: why don't we know more about the bullies themselves?

Instead of pointing out the problem, which we already know exists, why not confront the root of the problem head on? Why not attempt to try and understand why bullying exists in the first place? Is it really just the schools fault? Is it that they do not care enough? All I know is from my own experience, but I've witnessed bullying first hand. Schools never really did anything when a kid gets bullied.

In fact, when I was in sixth grade, we all lined up to the front of the classroom before we left for lunch. I had jokingly tapped a kid on the shoulder and said, "Tag, you're it." He turned around and sucker punched me right in the stomach. I had the wind knocked out of me, I couldn't breathe. He just stood there over me and shrugged his shoulders. Then the teacher soon walked up over to us and asked "What's going on here?"

The kid who punched me says, "We were just fooling around." The teacher took us both to the vice principal and the VP forced both us to apologize to the teacher. No phone calls to parents, no punishments. They had me apologize for getting punched in the stomach. Luckily, the kid and I were cool after that. He apologized to me the next day and we hung out a few times after. But he was kind of a bully back in those days and did that kind of shit to everyone. Never got in serious trouble. Fact of the matter is, public schools don't do shit, they never have. Are they the problem? They're part of it. But merely pointing the finger will not encourage them to do anything about it.

But look at it from their side. "We need to stop these bullies." Ok how? Be more strict? How are you gonna stop kids from terrorizing others on the school bus? Are you gonna have an authority figure on every school bus? It can't just be the schools who are at fault. Bullying has existed forever and it's not just going to stop immediately. What you can do is try to figure out why. Go to the source. Talk to the bullies themselves. You think they're all just bullies for the sake of being bullies? Some of them grow up in shitty households and environments. The schools don't teach kids to be bullies. It's just that a public school environment is naturally conducive to bullying. After all, any kid could go to a public school, they can come from any background. A school of 200 kids, 500 kids, 1,000 kids with zero bullies is just unrealistic.

I'm not saying that bullied kids have to learn to be tougher. I'm not saying schools shouldn't do anything. I'm not saying that it's right what bullies do to students. What I am saying is that the problem is very complex and this film does not do a good job of fully getting into such a complex issue. What it does do a good job of is having these parents tell emotional stories, putting their thoughts and feelings into the forefront. The film gives bullied kids a voice, and that's something. But this film isn't going to stop bullying, it just highlights the problem and nothing more.

Again though, there are some very touching stories in here, some very touching moments. There are parts where you can't help but feel a little choked up because it's a very real problem. But the parents of Alex, Kelby, Ja'Maya all act so helpless. Is there really nothing they can do? In fact, everyone in the film acts helpless. Bully is a naive film that offers naive solutions. While it definitely has a fair share of powerful scenes and moments, its message is overly-simplistic. Still, I think the film would definitely resonate with all kids, it's important that bullied kids out there know that they aren't alone because they often feel that way. This is a film that most importantly should be watched by kids, more than any other demographic. The fact that the MPAA has chosen to give this film an R rating is slap in the face to basic human decency and understanding.

Grade: C+

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