Bully for 'Bully'

It's a documentary with some shortcomings, but the power of the content fills the gaps

By Chris Heller
Published on April 19, 2012, 5:58am | Comments

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That last bit is shockingly obvious during a scene in Alex's school, when the assistant principal pulls two other boys aside after recess. One had clearly been bullying the other, though you wouldn't know it from the way the assistant principal reacts. She asks them to shake hands – you know, a sure-fire way to end a conflict once and for all – but when the victim refuses, she lectures him about how he's just as bad as his tormentor. (You read that correctly: A school administrator, meaning an adult who is paid to know how to manage kids, browbeats a student for standing up for himself, while she's being filmed!)

Starring Alex, Ja'Maya and Kelby
99 Minutes
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Moments like that make if difficult to think about Bully critically. The documentary is so viscerally demanding, so breathtaking, that it's almost tempting to ignore its glaring problems. Hirsch's composition is much of the same stuff that plagues most of the genre. He presents a problem, uses a collection of profiles to explain that it's a big problem, then he misappropriates an uplifting moment to suggest that the problem can be solved. Meanwhile, there's little to no effort made to explore the "why" of bullying, to learn what's turning these kids into sadists. The strength is the story, not the storyteller.

Perhaps that's the only thing that gives me pause about Bully: Hirsch is dealing with such an explosive issue, the shortcomings of his work could be easily missed. Those mistakes, though, are an excellent reminder that Bully is only one man's interpretation of the bullying problem. It's a step in the right direction, to be sure, but it's not the definitive story. With so much left to accomplish and so many problems yet to be addressed, it may never be.