My reviewing duties at DVD Talk allow me to screen a wide variety of films. By happenstance, I have watched a number of tough films of late, both narrative and documentary. These films speak to cruelty and compassion, and pose disturbing, perhaps unanswerable questions about human nature. Bully is such a film. Lee Hirsch's documentary reveals the subjective effects of bullying through intimate portraits of several middle and high school children. The stories are sad, and parents recall the children that took their own lives because of bullying. Bully is certainly powerful, though its episodic structure leaves many questions unanswered. More important is the film's message that its locations and participants are not unique; this is a universal problem.
The film travels to America's heartland and into the home of David and Tina Long, whose son Tyler committed suicide in 2009 after years of torment at school. Middle-schooler Alex Libby reveals that his classmates tease and physically abuse him because of his facial structure and reserved personality. Ja'Meya Jackson got so fed up with being teased that she took her mother's gun on the school bus and threatened her tormenters, landing her in juvenile detention. Teenage lesbian Kelby recognizes the fear and ignorance that drive people to condemn her sexuality, and works to help others like her earn acceptance in their communities. Each story is personal but evocative of a thousand others, and Bully captures some of the daily hardships each child and parent faces.
Hirsch's documentary doesn't attempt to travel every avenue of its subject, and instead focuses on what its participants are doing to combat bullying. Most affecting is how charismatic and valuable each child proves without pretense for Hirsch. Kelby is especially wise beyond her years, and recognizes that her small, conservative community might not yet be accepting of homosexuality. She refuses to write off her detractors, acknowledging that one day they will change. Alex is effortlessly funny, and his mom wisely remarks that he would be a great friend if his classmates gave him the time of day. Hirsch somehow captures disturbing footage of Alex being physically assaulted on the school bus, and is forced to reveal it to Alex's parents to ensure his safety. Alex's mom is shocked; Alex never shared the extent of the bullying with his parents.
Bully is purposely one-sided. Viewers receive little explanation from the bullies or their parents, which is indicative of the problem. A lack of communication and an unwillingness to accept the gravity of the situation allows the problem to continue. Alex's principal means well, but inadequately responds to concerns from Alex's parents, insisting that the children on Alex's bus are "as good as gold." Tyler's father recalls that his son's torment did not result in bloody noses or bruises but was damaging enough to turn him to suicide. All of the parents in Bully reveal that they never imagined their children were targeted to such an extent. The film asks where the balance lies between letting children work out their own problems and having parents and school administrators officiate prompt, often facetious reconciliations.
I would have liked Bully to follow up with its subjects - if only for my own peace of mind. The film asks questions it cannot hope to answer, and at least some face time with the bullies or adults advocating a "hands-off" approach would have strengthened the overall impact. These disturbing stories are unfortunately not a-typical, and Bully certainly sounds an important message. The parents and children causing the problem may never see this documentary, but Bully should positively impact those it reaches.
The 1.78:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer is comprised of a host of different stocks, but remains clear and sharp throughout. Bully is fairly standard HD fare, and recalls a polished newscast or commercial. Flesh tones are natural, colors nicely saturated and black levels normal. Detail is good, and close-ups reveal solid texture and facial intricacies. There's some aliasing and ringing, but Bully looks about as good as can be expected.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack supports this documentary with clear, balanced dialogue. The mix is naturally front-loaded, but clarity is good for dialogue, score and ambient effects, which spread into the surround speakers. English SDH and Spanish subtitles are available.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This two-disc set includes the Blu-ray and a DVD copy of the film. The discs are packed into a Blu-ray eco-case, and both discs include only the PG-13 cut of the film. Bully initially received an R rating from the MPAA, and the Weinstein Company lost an appeal to lower the rating to PG-13 without edits. TWC Co-Chairman Harvey Weinstein expressed dismay at the MPAA's decision, and the film was released theatrically in both an unrated version and a PG-13 version, which was minimally trimmed to remove some strong language. I'm not sure how much footage was ultimately cut, but this PG-13 version does include a scene with several instances of strong profanity. The Blu-ray includes an assortment of brief extras:
Bully is an affecting if imperfect look at the problem of bullying in America. Through the stories of several children and parents, the film reveals the all too common effects that bullying has on vulnerable children. Bully is episodic and leaves many questions unanswered, and you won't hear from the bullies or their parents. Nevertheless, Lee Hirsch's documentary says much about the lack of communication and unwillingness to recognize the problem that allow bullying to continue. The Blu-ray includes a number of related extras, and makes for good viewing for both parents and children. Recommended.