On Oct. 17, 2009, 17-year-old Tyler Long hanged himself. And we're told that years of bullying put a weight on his soul he could no longer carry. His little brother found his body in the closet.
"I always knew he would be victimized at some point in time," his remorseful father, David, relates early in the documentary Bully. Still, that knowledge didn't come with the power to protect his son from the taunting. In P.E., he was always the last one chosen, and sometimes classmates stole his clothes as he showered afterward.
"I still think he's going to come through that door," David says with tears in his eyes. "But I know he's not. If there is a heaven, I know Tyler's there. And all I can do is have faith that I'll see him again."
It's a heartbreaking story.
And its roots run deep, as an estimated 13 million American children will endure physical and/or emotional torment at the hands of peers this year, according to Department of Education estimates. By telling Tyler's emotional tale, as well as those of several other victims, film director Lee Hirsch hopes to shine a light on the kind of school-yard abuse so many young people suffer every day. And, perhaps, to suggest how we as a culture might begin to move beyond a nonchalant shoulder shrug and "kids will be kids" platitudes in response.
Bully interweaves the narratives of five young victims of others' abuse. And Tyler's suicide is but one of two that the film deals with, the other being the death of 11-year-old Ty Smalley. We're also introduced to Alex Libby, a quiet 12-year-old heading off to 7th grade in Sioux City, Iowa; Kelby Johnson, a confident 16-year-old in Tuttle, Okla., who was ostracized after coming out as a lesbian; and 14-year-old Ja'Meya Jackson, from Yazoo County, Miss., who finds herself in deep trouble after responding to bullies by taking a loaded gun on the bus one day.
Hirsch and his minimalist camera crew documented each of those stories over the course of the 2009-10 school year. In Sioux City, they worked extensively with the local school district, and ended up actually recording some of the brutal taunts and physical intimidation that Alex Libby endured.
"I'll break your Adam's apple, which will kill you," one bully says. "I will f‑‑‑ing end you and shove a broomstick up your a‑‑," says another.
Alex is also poked, hit and choked.
In the film's production notes, Hirsch talks about how his team captured such footage. "Kids had been bullying Alex for so long, with such impunity, that they had no fear of consequences. So while the bullying on camera was initially surprising, the reasons for it soon made sense. We were also shooting on the Canon 5d Mark II, which looked like a still photographic camera to the kids, so a lot of them were not necessarily aware that we were actually shooting video. Because we spent so much time in the school, we eventually became like wallpaper and were able to witness what a very typical day looked like. That said, we believe that the bullying was also much worse when the camera was not present."
Hirsch notes that Alex's victimization eventually crossed a line that compelled the filmmakers to get involved directly. "This was enormously challenging," he says, "in part because there were legal reasons not to physically intercede. But what we saw on that final bus ride with Alex was so alarming that it became a breaking point for us. Though it was a difficult decision in the moment, we decided to bring evidence of what was happening to the school, the Sioux City Police Department and Alex's parents."
Alex's parents are shocked to discover that the bullying of their son is much worse that what he's admitted, which prompts his dad to exhort the boy to stand up for himself and, essentially, to fight back. "You can't let this stuff go, because other people start seeing you as a punching bag," he says. "Nobody likes a punching bag."
The police? The film illustrates how their hands are largely tied until something definably criminal happens.
School administrators? They come off here as caring but dangerously naive and mostly powerless.
Kelby, Ja'Meya and Ty
Much of the recent focus on bullying in the United States has come in the wake of young people committing suicide after being picked on for being gay. And in turning his camera on Kelby Johnson's story, Hirsch offers a glimpse into exactly what kind of abuse might trigger such a tragic end. Unlike Alex's story, in which we actually see the boy being bullied, Kelby's is one she and her father tell. Talking about her experience as a lesbian in a small Oklahoma town, she says, "Any time anyone comes around who's the least bit different, they make sure they put them down." Kelby has been able to endure the abuse, we're told and shown, because of the support of a few close friends—including her girlfriend, with whom Kelby is shown hugging and holding hands.
She talks of sitting down in class only to have everyone move away from her. Of kids not wanting to touch her while playing sports. Of not being welcomed at church and in people's homes. She speaks of her three suicide attempts. And of the time a pickup truck ran her down.
"I flew up on the windshield," she says.
Kelby's father talks about growing up in Sunday School and hearing that homosexuality is a sin. Then he says, "Having a gay child has made me completely reevaluate who and what I am as a human being."
A short philosophical and spiritual tangent, triggered by Kelby's father's onscreen soul-searching: The abuse Kelby endured is, quite simply, unconscionable. That she says she's experienced some of it at the hands of Christians and the church should break our hearts. That said, this film indirectly highlights the idea that we may be rapidly reaching a point culturally at which it's impossible to express a biblical conviction about homosexual behavior without being labeled a bully—merely for voicing those convictions. Bully doesn't exploit that tension, but it does compel us all to grapple with it.
Meanwhile, in Mississippi, 14-year-old Ja'Meya Jackson and her mother are trying to come to grips with a spontaneous, consequence-riddled decision Ja'Meya made one day. Tired of being bullied on the bus, she steals her mother's loaded gun and points it at her tormentors. Students take her down (footage we see from the bus' security camera), and she's charged with 22 counts of reckless endangerment and 22 counts of kidnapping—charges that could bring her "hundreds of years" in jail, according to a police officer.
As her horrified mothers' friends gather to pray, Ja'Meya heads to court to receive the judge's decision in the case of a bullying victim who decided to bully back.
As Bully walks slowly toward a close, Hirsch's camera also gives us a heartrending glimpse into the grief of Kirk and Laura Smalley as they attend the funeral for their son, Ty. "We'll tuck him in one more time," Kirk says as they walk into the funeral, "and put him to bed."
But the tragedy of Ty's death also opens the way to a message of hope and change in the film's conclusion. Moved to do something after losing their son, Kirk and Laura found an anti-bullying organization called Stand for the Silent. It seeks to encourage other families who've lost children to suicide, and to empower parents and schools to protect children from bullying.
Bullying, the documentary illustrates, is a deeply rooted and complex problem, one that school administrators' good intentions alone will not solve. Which is why Kirk's words to teens and tweens are so valuable: "Be the difference. Be a friend to the new kid. Be willing to help when he's pushed down. Be willing to stand up for him."
… But Words Will Never Hurt Me
Without equivocation, Bully strives to advocate on behalf of victimized children. And it does so in part by revealing some of the things that really get done and really get said on busses and in hallways and in classrooms. So it's worth noting that it overhears bullies sometimes swearing, and victims repeating those words when describing their troubles. We hear three or four f-words and an s-word along with scattered uses of "a‑‑," "b‑‑ch," "p‑‑‑y," "p‑‑‑," "n-gger" and "oh my god."
Language and all, says Hirsch, "I made Bully for kids to see—the bullies as well as the bullied. To capture the stark reality of bullying, we had to capture the way kids act and speak in their everyday lives—and the fact is that kids use profanity."
Not everyone agrees with that, of course. Weeks before the film arrived in theaters, controversy over Bully's assigned R rating reached an unprecedented level. And by the time the film was released, an online petition to change the rating to PG-13 had been signed by nearly half a million people, including 20 members of the U.S. Congress. "It's really unfortunate that the MPAA couldn't … see the hypocrisy of some of the films that they have let out as a PG or a PG-13 that are so violent and terrifying and gory and have profanity as well," said Hirsch. "This is a film that all these national and international organizations and nonprofits, the Department of Education [and] people from education that work with these kids, that know their world—it's a broad base and they're behind it."
Joan Graves, head of the MPAA's Classification and Ratings Administration, responded, "Bullying is a serious issue and is a subject that parents should discuss with their children. The MPAA agrees … that Bully can serve as a vehicle for such important discussions. Unfortunately, there is a misconception about the R rating of this film limiting the audience to adults. This is not true. The voluntary ratings system enables parents to make an informed decision about what content they allow their children to see in movies."
Four days before initial (limited) release, The Weinstein Company announced that it had decided to take advantage of that voluntary structure by releasing the film without any rating at all. In a press release, the movie studio stated, "After a recent plea to the MPAA by Bully teen Alex Libby and The Weinstein Company (TWC) Co-Chairman Harvey Weinstein failed—by one vote—to get the film its deserved PG-13 rating, TWC is choosing to move forward with releasing the film unrated by the MPAA."
Then, six days after release, The Weinstein Company announced that it had, after all, decided to make enough edits (mainly trimming back the f-word count to the level we report in this updated review) to secure a PG-13 rating for the theatrical expansion and home video release of the film.
For more on Bully's rating, read our March 5, 2012, Culture Clips entry on the subject and Paul Asay's blog, "Harsh Truth: Is Weinstein's Bully Movie Too Profane for Kids?" For information on the controversy surrounding how Bully presents the facts about some of its featured bullying victims, read our April 2, 2012, Culture Clips.