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DVD Review: Bully (2011)

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Bully, now available on DVD, is not an easy film to watch. But it is a very moving and unforgettable film. Director and cameraman Lee Hirsch has used the techniques of reality television (cameras following people, talking head interviews) to not only document his subjects, but somehow become invisible enough to capture some really shocking and touching moments on screen.

During the 2009-10 school year Hirsch filmed five students, their families, and communities. Each teen was being bullied daily, some for years. Two of the students, Tyler Long and Ty Smalley, tragically took their own lives after relentless bullying. The kids, all from what most would consider typical American “safe” communities, attended public schools in Georgia, Iowa, Texas, Mississippi, and Oklahoma.

The film bounces back and forth between Tyler and Ty’s grieving families and three teens, Alex, Ja’Maya, and Kelby, who have had to face nearly constant ostracism from their peers and little-to-no support from school officials. School is the major location where bullying tends to take place. The most shocking footage in the film displays the constant physical and verbal abuse that 12-year-old Alex is subjected to on the bus to and from school every day.

After a particularly unpleasant afternoon ride home, when Alex was being punched and stabbed by his schoolmates with pencils, filmmaker Hirsch stepped in to show his parents the footage, shocking them. Alex, like many kids, was ashamed, or just endured being picked on to “fit in,” and wasn’t telling his parents how bad things had gotten. When his outraged parents report the attacks and request to get him off the school bus, the school vice principal tries to downplay the abuse with the familiar line of “kids will be kids.” She even goes so far as to claim that she herself had ridden the same bus route and the kids were “good as gold.” An air of frustration hangs over Bully. Filmmaker Hirsch wisely lets the useless school officials speak for themselves, rather than bringing in talking heads to point out their failures and weaknesses.

The film is a documentary, but it is also a call to action. There are many extras included on the disc, which not only offer glimpses of how Alex and the others are doing these days (much better), but ways communities are working against bullying and how viewers can also become involved in The Bully Project. There is also footage of Tyler’s and Ty’s parents and their continuing campaign to stop bullying and honor the memory of their children. As Ty’s father says in a touching moment, “My son will be 11 forever.”

The film, rated PG-13, has been screened for students and their teachers across the nation, but it was a long road for Bully to get a PG-13 rating. When it was originally released to theaters the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) had given the film an R rating due to language. This made the film inaccessible to its target audiencekidsso the distributor, The Weinstein Company, decided to release the film to theaters unrated, which limited the amount of screens that could run it. The MPAA finally agreed to a PG-13 rating after some of the profanity (all spoken by teens) was toned down. Now that Bully is on DVD, it will be even more widely accessible.

The Bully DVD is in widescreen format, with an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, and runs 99 minutes. The sound is Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English and Spanish. The many extras on the disc include featurettes on “The Bully Project,” “Communities in Motion,” as well as a PSA featuring actress Meryl Streep. Also included are an interview clip featuring the director and some of the cast on Good Morning America, as well as multiple deleted scenes and an update on Alex and how he’s doing now.

Everyone can call up an incident of bullying from their own past to relate to, and anyone watching the film should be able to connect with Alex and all of the other kids and their families. Bully is a powerful film and should be seen by kids, parents, and educatorseven in areas and schools where bullying may not be considered a problem.

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