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'Bully': Documentary is a conversation starter but has little new to say

Alex Hopkins' situation gets the most attention in Bully, a documentary that for the most part oversimplifies the subject of childhood bullying.
Alex Hopkins' situation gets the most attention in Bully, a documentary that for the most part oversimplifies the subject of childhood bullying.

Bully is a moving but somewhat myopic take on America's newly anointed favorite childhood problem: schoolyard bullying. With emotional testimonials and candidly damning school and school bus video evidence, it's a movie pitched as more than a mere movie — a cause, and a righteous one at that.

Lee Hirsch's documentary visits the parents of bullied children who killed themselves in Georgia and Oklahoma. It follows a bullied boy in Sioux City, Iowa, a Mississippi girl who brought a gun on the bus to fight those bullying her, and an ostracized gay teen in rural Oklahoma.

And here you come to the movie's biggest problem. What, bullying only exists in rural, red-state America? Hirsch might be suggesting that this media-hyped "city" problem has come to the heartland. But that's not a case his movie makes.

To the movie's credit, ineffectual school administrators are caught on camera, being ineffectual ("You boys shake hands"). Parents face the shock of realizing that school buses have devolved into rowdy free-for-alls in just a generation. And a pretty wide selection of kids face this: gawky, awkward Alex from Sioux City; the camouflage-wearing hunter's son from Oklahoma; black kids and white kids; straight ones and might-be-gay ones.

Hirsch's message here is to not be silent, to raise a ruckus with school officials, school boards and local law enforcement lest other kids be hurt or kill themselves because of this ugly rite of passage.

Only a hint of lip service is paid to that traditional "rite of passage" view, that "this too, shall pass," "boys will be boys." One kid, the friend of someone who committed suicide, off-handedly remembers how he stopped being picked on himself: "Once I stood up for myself, it stopped."

You can be forgiven for shouting, "Well, duh!" at the screen. This is the way boys have been taught for generations. Does it no longer work?

Alex from Sioux City's dad tells him, "You can't let this stuff go on," but that's as far as he takes it.

The film hints at a problem that has become bigger as we've magnified its importance, and at some of the larger social issues contributing to it — schools fearful of lawsuits from the parents of bullies, parents who refuse to discipline their kids for bullying, and a system that doesn't encourage parents to teach their kids how to stand up for themselves.

Hirsch had great access to schools and kids, and he shows us how administrators deal with these problems. Remember, they weren't witnesses, so that's a tricky line to walk. That's just one way the movie oversimplifies its subject.

Hirsch doesn't have evidence to back up what Kelby — gay, but seemingly the coolest kid in her Oklahoma school — says is happening to her. Nobody questions why a 14-year-old girl in Mississippi has both a tattoo and easy access to mom's pistol. Hirsch lets the Oklahoma hunter's kid's parents blame a system that the movie suggests wasn't made aware of his being bullied, which leads one to wonder just what we don't know or aren't being told about his death.

Bully, originally slapped with an idiotic "R" rating, has a hot-button subject and some interesting case studies as conversation starters.

Alex, the film's central character, is the one victim profiled with some depth. You can see why he's bullied: Socially inept and at a physically awkward stage, he's not really set up to stick up for himself, so he can seem helpless. But he's a doting brother to his sisters, a sweet and even-tempered kid who is undeserving of his lot.

For all the real-life angst that Bully presents, you can't help but feel that a century of movies and sitcom episodes might be more help to these kids than the film's "you're no better than he is if you stoop to his level" preaching. If bullying is predominantly a rural America problem, maybe rural America needs to get back to watching reruns of The Andy Griffith Show.

Then again, "Opie and the Bully" today probably would end with Sheriff Andy getting sued.

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