2 1/2 out of 4 stars
Not since "Fahrenheit 9/11" -- which not so coincidentally was also stewarded by producer Harvey Weinstein -- has a documentary received so much advance buzz as "Bully." Unlike director Michael Moore's blowhard tome of twisted half-truths and outright false proclamations, filmmaker Lee Hirsch's oddly subdued movie has received most of its political talking head analysis and water-cooler chatter not so much over its content but because of its MPAA rating.
In the last two weeks, the rating for "Bully" has gone from "R" to "NR" to its current, far more commercially lucrative "PG-13." The war of wills between Weinstein and the MPAA focused on the language -- specifically the inclusion of three "f-bombs." Ever the strident artiste, Weinstein claimed that removing the profanity would blunt the film's impact. The MPAA has strict rules regarding the f-word and if it is used more than once in a film, that film gets an "R" rating.
The ratings argument was raised in part to parents groups decrying that the very people who would benefit the most from seeing "Bully" (children) couldn't see it because of the language. Are these parents even aware that any child can see any "R" rated film while accompanied by an of-age adult (not even specifically a parent)? Given what children are exposed to with cable TV, video games and the Internet, language should really have been the least of their concerns.
Finally a compromise was reached. The f-word would be silenced (not bleeped) and in its place -- get this -- subtitles that would actually spell out the four-letter word. Parents can now take solace in the fact that if their children can't read, they won't be offended.
The main problem with the movie as a whole and particularly with its presentation style is its overreaching, overwhelming fawning desire to remain emphatically politically correct. With subject matter as volatile and supercharged as bullying, that was definitely not the way to go.
In the movie "Se7en," Kevin Spacey's John Doe character lamented that it's impossible to get people's attention anymore with a tap on the shoulder; you have to hit them over the head with a sledgehammer. "Bully" uses a tap where a sledgehammer would have been preferred.
The safe-as-milk, why-can't-we-all-just-get-along narrative flow of the movie will have a devastating effect on parents already keenly aware of the bullying problem or those who get weepy while watching greeting card commercials. Those aren't the people that needed to be reached. Hirsch is essentially whispering to the choir here when he should have been sternly admonishing the guilty.
Regrettably, those guilty are other children that commit the same kind of crimes that would earn them jail sentences as adults. Mental torture (stalking), verbal abuse (assault) and physical battery are carried out on a daily basis in this country by minors and it rarely makes news or, more significantly, ever gets reprimanded or punished. Exactly once in the film for roughly two minutes does Hirsch put bullies on the spot or call them to task. Hirsch never even addresses the far more widespread (and frequently anonymous) epidemic of cyber-bullying.
Also at fault are the absentee parents of the bullies who usually chalk up their children's heinous behavior to growing pains, are more interested in being friends to their children or are just simply clueless. If you want to know where bullying originates, you need to tour the entrenched training grounds. Hirsch never even visits this significant arena.
Lastly -- and this is likely to open up an entirely different can of worms -- are the assorted (mostly union-shielded) teachers, school administrators and various elected public officials -- who throw up their collective indignant arms in feigned frustration when even slightly pressed by the public for answers or solutions. One particular middle-aged female vice-principal in Sioux City, Iowa, even goes as far as to chastise a victim of bullying for not wanting to shake the hand of his insincerely apologetic abuser. Later in the film the victim states, with a slight degree of rightful pride, that he's no longer being bullied -- because he finally fought back.
Hirsch -- bless him -- has his heart squarely in the right place. He includes the history of a half dozen principal victims and they're all socially divergent enough to make it clear that it's not just passive, undersized males that are the target. An extended scene prior to the opening credits is easily the strongest in the film and is visceral with its emotional smackdown. If Hirsch had kept up this same throttling mindset for the duration, the movie would have made for an indispensable teaching/learning tool and a brilliant work of art. Sadly, in the end, "Bully" is a too-soft, too-skittish, too-tentative, exceedingly well-intended misfire. (The Weinstein Co.)