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.