Hell is other children, as anyone who came of age in the public school system is well aware. For the average kid, absorbing cruelty from one's peers is just an accepted part of growing up. In his much-discussed documentary on bullying in U.S. schools, Bully director Lee Hirsch doesn't attempt to explain the brutal nature of adolescence. He merely films it. To do much more would exceed the scope of a 99-minute movie. Like any social ill, bullying cuts to the cancerous heart of American culture. It's an issue that touches on everything from the erosion of school funding to media desensitization. Instead of rolling out statistics and a parade of talking heads, Hirsch simply turns the camera on and lets the abuse speak for itself.
To some, that might sound overly reductive. It's a fair criticism. Often, the film starts discussions that Hirsch's dedication to nonconfrontation won't allow it to finish. But if Bully understands anything, it's the visceral power of human experience. The movie weaves together the stories of five bullying victims, including a 16-year-old lesbian who, as far as her tiny Oklahoma hometown is concerned, might as well have come out as a leper; a 13-year-old girl pushed far enough to bring a gun onto the school bus; and two cautionary tales, of children—one only 11 years old—driven to suicide by constant, ruthless harassment. At the film's center is an Iowa preteen named Alex. Gawky and bespectacled, he's an easy target for insults, though getting called "fish face" is hardly the worst of his daily torment: Over his nervous, uneven breathing, a hidden microphone picks up a fellow student's colorful description of how he'll mutilate Alex if he tries to sit next to him on the bus again.
Even more appalling, somehow, are the adults. School officials—those Hirsch chooses to highlight, at least—seem to operate on the principle that if a kid is getting picked on, he or she probably deserves it. In one particularly infuriating scene, an administrator at Alex's school, who pops up throughout the film as a symbol of the blissful indifference of authority, deflects the concerns of his parents with empty assurances, then shows off photos of her newborn grandchild. It's at moments such as that when Hirsch's passive activism grows maddening. In simply giving voice to the victims, Bully generates enormous empathy, and that alone justifies the studio's highly publicized battle with the MPAA over the film's rating. Still, like the kids he observes, you can't help wishing Hirsch would push back once in a while.
SEE IT: Bully is rated PG-13. It opens Friday at Fox Tower.