Amidst a long battle with the MPAA, Bully gained quite a bit of free publicity. The controversy over its rating seemingly overshadowed its deeper look into an important social issue. Yet while the MPAA undeservedly gave it a harsh rating, which is an entirely different engaging question and subsequent discussion, the social issue and relevancy are delivered in a stunning, and often emotionally exhausting, way. Bully is, without a doubt, not only a great piece of cinematic art but also a wake up call to its target audience.
Bully, the newest film from Lee Hirsch and distributed by the Weinstein Company, seeks to shed light on just how bad the issue of bullying has become in the American educational system today. It follows the stories of families and individuals affected by bullying and does so in an engaging and emotional way.
First off, Bully looks stunning. The aesthetics of the film are quite beautiful, utilizing a great sense of framing and deep focus. The cinematography is accompanied by a great minimalistic, almost ambient score. It can be haunting, yet never interferes with the emotional weight of the subject. The editing is great, with some notable cuts that have an almost disturbing sense of comedic timing. The high point of this type of timing comes from a delayed pause as a result of a school administrator scolding a victim instead of the bully. The film portrays exactly what the viewer feels at that point.
The film does not pull any punches. It presents the acts of bullying and the effect it has on the families in a sobering way. Bully is a great piece of cinematic work. The hand-held camera and shifting focus works in a way that recalls both personal home movies and stark war films. This form is totally representational of the content. The opening scene intercuts the results of a suicide and home video of the victim in a gripping way. The serious tone does not really ever let up. The piece seeks not only to entertain, but to also force the viewer to look at what is going on. There are moments where the viewer wants the camera to pull back, but it can not. It simply must document the events and present them to the viewer in a compelling way, no matter how painful it may be.
It does have its emotional high points though. The film is not a completely dark piece which will leave you depressed. The ways in which the film portrays the victims of bullying and some of their optimistic attitudes can bring a smile to the viewers face. The film ends on a somewhat optimistic point. However, this never undercuts the reality of the lives lost to bullying.
Thus, with the overall dark tone, a question must be raised. Who is the audience for Bully? The controversy surrounding the films original rating stemmed solely from the fact that educators would not be able to screen the film in schools. While some content was reportedly cut from the film, there is still a considerable amount of harsh language and violence. The film has its emotional low points that leave the viewer at best worn out and at worst feeling like they have attended a funeral. While children are completely capable of emotional complexity and deeply intelligent thought processes, as the film portrays, the greatest value of the film will come not from showing it to children, but rather to adults. The discussions it will raise are pivotal in starting the change that needs to happen.
The issues presented in the film are serious and complex. It is easy to write off the film for not really presenting any answers to the problems or presenting the point of view from the bully. These critiques completely miss the point. The problem lies deep within the foundation of our society. Bully does not present a solution, but rather opens up the discussion for the rebuilding of our educational and parenting systems. Simply put, people need to see this film. The only way that things can change are first through discussion. Bully opens up this opportunity in an engaging and entertaining way.
Note: This review was originally published in Ritz Film