The cruelty of children is on full, horrific display in the new documentary Bully (dir. Lee Hirsch), which follows a handful of American middle- and high-schoolers (most living in rural Midwestern and Southern towns) over the course of a school year as they suffer torment and abuse at the hands of their classmates. The subjects range from 12-year-old Alex, a boy so accustomed to being assaulted and teased (he’s taunted with the epithet “Fish Face”) that he often apologizes for his attackers’ behavior, to an adolescent girl serving time in a juvenile detention center for turning a gun on (though stopping short of firing it at) the kids who incessantly picked on her. Through interviews with and footage of these children and their frequently distraught parents, the film argues for the recognition of bullying as a national problem in need of reform at just about every level (kids, parents, administrators, and law enforcers are all suggested to be implicated to various degrees).
The film succeeds most at drawing us into these children’s worlds: the schools where they face casual violence from peers and are met with shrugs and sighs from clueless faculty, the homes where they can afford the luxury of smiling and relaxing with family members, and the buses that shuttle them back and forth, revealed to be miniature Sadean torture chambers where kids are punched, pushed, and verbally harassed—a literal hell on wheels. Bully is at its best when it’s least intrusive, when it simply lets kids talk about their abuses in their own words, and when scenes of the jaw-dropping ineptitude with which many adults respond to the problem play out before our eyes. (In one quietly devastating scene, a school administrator ends up siding against a victimized boy who refuses to accept his tormenter’s insincere apology.)
The film ends with a call to action, with plugs for anti-bullying hotlines and Facebook groups—all well and good, except that the film seems uncertain about exactly what course needs to be taken. It may also be unrealistic in its conviction that bullying can be “fixed”: while the “kids will be kids” argument has often been an excuse that lets guilty kids go unpunished, it’s possible that children have always been and will go on being mean to one another, and that stopping children from being cruel to one another once and for all may be as impossible a task as wiping out murder or adultery. The best course of action the film presents may be the one voiced by the father of an 11-year-old boy who took his own life after being bullied at school, who now tours the country telling school kids to make a concerted effort to practice kindness and compassion, and to stand up for their maligned peers. “Go find the kid standing in the corner and make friends with him,” he urges. Strong friendships, the film suggests, may be the one thing powerful enough to keep kids from giving into despair.