I had wondered why I was seeing so much buzz for Bully, the documentary about school bullying and its consequences until it came to the local bargain theater and the credits rolled.
“Presented by the Weinstein Company”
Ohhhh. You may remember the Weinsteins from when they were Miramax. They gave us Kevin Smith and, more relevantly, used their massive PR machine to secure an Oscar for Shakespeare In Love. So I don’t think Dinesh D’Souza has to worry about writing that acceptance speech. We have a winner.
Snark and PR machine aside, Bully is the story of kids who were or have been bullied, beyond the typical shenanigans and well into abuse. Let me say up front that this is a pretty good documentary—I’ll discuss its weaknesses in a bit—and it’s hard not to feel for these kids.
Fortunately, we were the only ones in the theater, because I was exasperated enough to—well, be more expressive than is appropriate for a public viewing. The kids, of course, cope with the bullying the best they can. They’re naive, bitter, optimistic, depressed, playful—just trying for something that works.
But the adults are fucking clueless.
Swearing is appropriate here.
I went to good schools. Yet the one universal quality they all had was a near complete lack of ethics. We hear all the excuses I’ve heard adults give my whole life in this movie. Things like “let the kids sort it out for themselves” and “it takes two” and other clueless things.
If the purpose of schools is to prepare children for life as an adult, I could never figure out the logic behind letting lunch money be extorted, or turning a blind eye to physical assaults, or even the sort of coordinated social ostracization that happens so often.
I guess women (and sometimes men, too, though I think not as commonly) do the social ostracization thing even outside of school. But, of course, one can escape most social circumstances (unlike school, and prison).
But, last time I checked, robbery, burglary and assault were all crimes. The people who commit them go to jail. The people who defend themselves from it are heroic, and entitled to use deadly force to keep from becoming victims.
The adult perspective of “Well, it’s just kid stuff. It’s not that serious” imposes an adult viewpoint on a child who can’t possibly adopt it. A child doesn’t know if that other, bigger child with the mob of friends is going to kill him. And, as this movie shows, it’s often very, very serious.
I’m a laissez-faire parent in a lot of ways. But, as I’ve stated before, I’m suspicious of techniques for handling children that reinforce adults’ natural tendency to be lazy. And figuring out the ethics of a situation between kids can be very difficult indeed.
But that’s not what we’re dealing with here: There are tormentors. And there are the tormented. And neither are served.
Indeed, this is where this movie is the weakest: It alternates between a half-dozen kids, showing a nerdy boy and a black girl and a lesbian and friends of one who committed suicide and so on, and it’s probably between 25%-40% more than we need to see. Even my kids, who are pretty unfamiliar with bullying, got the idea in the first hour.
What would’ve made this movie great is spending some time with the bullies. I can get why this would be challenging but you only get half a story. It’s a tragedy with no villain, practically.
And not just bullies but everyone. Bullies are typically loners or small packs that pick on other loners or small packs. But they do so with the tacit (or overt) approval of the entire community.
What possible good comes out of an environment like that?
Yes, whether meaning to or not, this plays to my prejudices as a homeschooling parent. Because nobody seriously questions the academic superiority of homeschooling these days, the fallback is “But what about socialization?!” Yeah. Spare me. I’ve seen what passes for socialization in schools. It’s basically prison with evening furloughs.
So, overall a good documentary, powered a lot by the subjects, but not the best documentary we’ve seen this year, whatever the Academy Awards say. The Boy and The Flower both liked, even though they had limited experience with bullying. (The Boy has always been immune and The Flower is very cognizant of the jerkiness of some of her peers. She finds it disappointing but isn’t trapped enough to feel bullied.)