Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s 21 Jump Street encapsulates a certain lost era when placed side by side with Bully. Whereas there was a time and a place where bullying was accepted as a “boys will be boys” ritual, the overarching sense is that bullying is just not “in anymore. This caught up with Channing Tatum in 21 Jump Street, where he endures a role reversal as his bullying tactics strike a negative chord amongst his new classmates. The scene’s intent was purely comedic, but it does function as an interesting critique on the nature of contemporary bullying. Unfortunately, this contemporary rejection of bullying comes at the price of those who are featured in Bully, whose plight serves as perfunctory punishment to bring about awareness.
Lee Hirsch opens his documentary with a devastating look into the life of a family whose son committed suicide as a result of bullying. On a visceral level, it’s a troubling scene, whereupon Hirsch pulls no punches and moves headlong into interviewing various pre-teens and teens who have been victimized. From here, Hirsch makes conscious efforts to address how limited parental guidance and dubious school administration produces an environment ripe for bullying. Hirsch also sheds light on the evolutionary traits of bullying, whereupon physical assault is less of an issue, with verbal abuse functioning as the primary tool for victimization.
Of course, none of the above is really all too revealing – lacking parental influence has always been problematic and verbal abuse amongst teens doesn’t require a whole lot of investigative journalism to uncover. This brings about one of the many problems I had with Bully. While Hirsch observes his subjects with a great deal of compassion, their cases are too limited within his vignette structure to ever thoroughly analyze. Everything is simply too obvious, wherein we’re merely scratching the surface of several larger social issues.
The film’s sample size is particularly problematic, as Hirsch’s utilization of lower-class children in rural settings presents itself as being far too specific to a particular mindset and not nearly as universal as the film tries to be. The picture misses out on some crucial opportunities of investigation, particularly the racial components associated to bullying. A black teenage girl brings a gun onto a school bus as a means of self-defense, though the act leads her into a juvenile corrections facility. An aging, white male authority figure goes on at length as to question the teenager’s mental state, whereupon he claims that no amount of bullying can justify her actions. Such faulty logic is appalling, but Hirsch never pushes beyond that sound bite.
Hirsch’s fragments his vignettes arbitrarily, moving from child to child with limited insight. Bully lacks finesse in its construction, but manages to work as a purely emotional piece. And given that it’s largely a call-to-action film, I suppose touching upon the various emotional touchstones is enough. The picture strikes the right emotional chords, but it’s too limited in its scope. There’s simply not enough here to mull over – you’re left with a fairly superficial account of tragedies that would have been better served with a bit more delicacy and precision.