There's no such thing as an honest documentary.
Any one, told in any way, will be twisted and tacked into place by a filmmaker's intentions. An experience, even if it's captured in its entirety, will be edited and condensed. Voice-over narration offers context as a storytelling device, but fundamentally affects how that story is told. Whether we like it or not, documentaries are shaped as much by their creators as they are by their subjects.
Knowing this is necessary to properly consider Bully, as well as the controversy that surrounded Harvey Weinstein's successful campaign to lower its MPAA rating from R to PG-13. Curiously, though, that knowledge is inconsequential to the startling message Bully shares. It's simply too jarring, too important.
Bully, as the title suggests, is about our shameful failure as a culture to recognize and prevent bullying – but it's also about the subjects, the kids, who appear dead-eyed and undeniably burdened by that cruel torment. They're from rural and suburban towns in the Bible Belt and they're targeted for all sorts of reasons: sexual orientation, disability or appearance, for example. Hirsch takes an intensely observant look at these subjects, filming their lives in school and at home to paint a bleak portrait of the bullied.
One is a Mississippi girl jailed for pulling a gun on kids who wouldn't stop harassing her. Another is a lesbian who stubbornly refuses to leave her small Oklahoma town, but struggles to exact any noticeable change. Alex Libby, a shy teenager from Oklahoma who's essentially the central figure of the documentary, is threatened and assaulted every day on the school bus, yet keeps his emotions guarded when his parents ask him about it. And then there are two other heartbreaking cases, where Hirsch chronicles what happens to a family after a suicide.
To say that these stories are upsetting, or angering, or terrifying doesn't do Bully the justice it deserves. How do you react to watching a mother explain where exactly in the closet her 17-year-old son hanged himself? Or learning that an 11-year-old was so tortured that he, too, killed himself? Or realizing that adults seem unable or unwilling to address this epidemic?
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!)
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.