Ed Gibbs August 19, 2012
Reviewer rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Reader rating: 3 out of 5 stars (14 votes)
Director: Lee Hirsch
Screen writer: Lee Hirsch, Cynthia Lowen
OFLC rating: M
(M, 98 minutes). Opens Thursday. ★★★☆
New York filmmaker Lee Hirsch has a knack for presenting a serious topic with an air of accessibility. His previous films have included documentaries about apartheid South Africa (Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony) and the heroic actions of a US marine serving in Iraq (Act of Honor). Now, he's drawing on his own grim experience as a high-school kid growing up in Long Island and New Hampshire.
With unapologetic gravity, Bully presents damning evidence on a problem in schools that appears to be out of control. Fly-on-the-wall footage captures 12-year-old Alex Libby - a gangly, goofy kid who struggles to make friends - getting mercilessly punched, poked and jeered at. The bus driver does nothing. The teachers at school fob off parents. No one takes the problem seriously. One victim, however (14-year-old Ja'Meya Jackson), does take action against her tormentors and is interviewed in juvenile detention. There's something seriously wrong with this picture.
It's sobering stuff: enough to make one's blood boil, particularly when head teachers feign concern for the charges in their care. Things got so bad for 17-year-old Tyler Long, he took his life. His parents are left to wonder why. Which is, in essence, what's missing from this brutally frank document on what lies beneath the surface of school life in the US (and, apparently, here in Australia). None of the perpetrators are questioned by Hirsch about their crimes, which feels out of step with the film's remit. Such an oversight provides an unsatisfactory conclusion to an otherwise important film.
Hirsch has been on the ground here, helping to promote the film and highlight the issue. When I asked him if the film had proved therapeutic for his own experiences growing up, he answered, ''What makes you think I've gotten over it?'' Bully is most definitely worth viewing and following up.