For weeks, the story surrounding Cynthia Lowen and Lee Hirsch's Bully has been about not the documentary itself, but about the letter "R." The MPAA initially gave the film an R rating for language, which inspired cries of outrage from the filmmakers, distributor Harvey Weinstein and various allies. It was crucial that this film be accessible to teenagers, they insisted, presumably because it was meant for that audience.
Except that it's not.
That's evident from the opening minutes, when the first voice we hear is that of David Long, father of Tyler Long, who committed suicide at 17, after years as a bullying target. We see happy, giggling home-movie footage of young Tyler, leading into David's narration about the change in Tyler's personality over the years. It's heartbreaking, yet it also conveys a lot about where Bully is aiming: not so much at the everyday experience of American teens, but at the fears of every parent that there but for the grace of God go they.
Certainly the Long family isn't the only subject of Bully, and the writing team does indeed shine a light on the experience of a few specific teens. Most prominently featured is Alex Libby, a 12-year-old Sioux City, Iowa boy of shy personality and unconventional appearance. We see in disturbing detail the hazing he gets on the school bus: random punches in the arm, mock (and not so much) stranglings, being shunned and shoved from seat to seat. There's cruelty on display, and it provokes a gut-level response.
But Bully unfolds almost entirely at the level of gut-level response. While one seemingly hapless assistant principal at Alex's school becomes something of a stand-in for oblivious administrators of all kinds, there's never a serious attempt to get a handle on why schools so often fail to protect students. The filmmakers similarly aren't interested in exploring why a phenomenon that is hardly brand new has become so much more psychologically damaging. Every time they approach an area that's unsettling beyond the basic premise, like the insinuation by Alex's father that the boy's passivity is part of the problem, or Alex's chilling, Columbine-evoking comment that getting hurt makes him want to hurt people back, the film retreats to safer, more conventionally heart-rending ground.
It's also frustrating watching time devoted to a plethora of undeveloped sub-plots. We hear Kelby Johnson, a 16-year-old out lesbian in Oklahoma, describe the ostracism she faces, but never see it. Similarly, the underlying causes that drove 14-year-old Ja'Maya Jackson to brandish a gun at classmates on a bus are so superficially addressed that it's hard to know how threatened she actually felt; a law-enforcement official who describes Ja'Maya's actions as inexcusable is presented as somehow insensitive, when for all we know, he's right. As difficult as it may be to focus on what bullied kids actually face, which only the money shots of Alex really show us, that's the story.
Instead, Bully offers a call to action built on the undeniably wrenching image of parents at the funeral of 11-year-old Ty, who killed himself, and the inspiring scenes of parents turning their grief into action. Of course there's value in a film that forces adults, who are certainly a big part of the problem, to think differently. As fiercely as the people behind this movie fought to make sure that teenagers could see it, though, you'd think that Bully might actually have made more of an attempt to talk to them.