Good grief. This thing comes out of the gate swinging. Four minutes in and you’ll wish you brought some Kleenex. There’s no doubt what all of the buzz is about, this is an outstanding documentary that doesn’t pull its punches, and people are paying attention. In fact, the showing I went to was attended by two school buses worth of high school kids.
Bully follows five families from different states whose children are affected by bullying. Three of the kids we actually get to meet. A socially awkward boy who gets physically and emotionally abused by his classmates on the bus, a teenage girl being ostracized for being an out lesbian, and a girl who is awaiting trial for attempting to ward off bullying by waving her mother’s gun around on the school bus. The other two kids we only get to meet through old home videos and the memories of family and friends because they escaped their bullies by committing suicide. Let me tell you, I’ve never had a harder time in a movie theater than watching an 11-year-old kid bawl next the casket of his best friend. That’s an image that’s not going to be leaving me alone.
The film is undoubtedly powerful when the kids try their best to explain what it’s like for them to be pursued and to feel like no one is going to do anything, but I think it’s at its absolute best when focusing on the parents of the children and how powerless they feel. No matter how you look at it, it’s a heartbreaking ride that I’m really glad I took, but hope I never have to see again.
The editing of the stories is outstanding. There was a year of footage to work with and it’s paced well and unravels in a manner that keeps the audience actively involved, guessing at what’s coming next. Unfortunately, the camerawork is a disaster. I understand that documentary shooters have to find their focus on the fly and a little bit of swimming is expected, but it seemed to be used as a very distracting style choice here. Perfectly focused shots will suddenly jump extremely out of focus for a moment and then back in. I get it if it’s in the middle of an emotional talking head speech and you don’t want to interrupt their heart-wrenching story with a cutaway, but even standalone insert shots swim out of focus for a moment, which clearly could have been taken care of in editing. They were deliberately cutting it in to—I don’t know—make it feel more real, I guess? Every time they did it, they took me out of the story they were telling.
There’s no one that can make an indie movie grab headlines like the Weinstein boys. The whole outrage over the MPAA giving this film an “R” rating blocking the demographic that NEEDS TO see it was solved by cutting out a few curse words to get it down to a PG-13, but not before it was a front page headline on every newspaper’s entertainment section.
My personal opinion: Should be seen by anyone who is a kid, has a kid, or ever was a kid. It’s a rough ride, but it makes you want to look out for everybody. —Jake Jarvi