MOVIE RATING: 3.5 stars (B)
Bully (2012) is a raw and visceral documentary about kids being bullied, told from the point of view of the kids (and their parents) who are being bullied. Directed, and shot for the most part, by Lee Hirsch, Bully is unafraid to delve into what it feels like to be bullied. And Hirsch definitely gets that part right. Kids can be downright cruel to one another. Especially to those that don’t fit into what the bully or the group labels and defines as “Normal”…whatever that means. They judge their peers on physical looks, religion, sexuality, behavior, intelligence, etc. And they bully them through violence, words, and emotions.
Hirsch found an effective way to tell his story of the victims of bullying by shooting the documentary on a Canon 5D Mark II, a small still photography camera (DSLR) that shoots great HD video. This “low-key” production strategy gave him the ability to almost disappear while he was embedded with these kids in the schools, on the bus, and around their towns. Hirsch shot most of the film by himself so as not to call attention to a “crew” and the fact that he was making a movie. It’s surprising at times that the kids act out their bullying on camera, but from listening to Hirsch talk about the making of the film in an Apple “Meet The Filmmaker” podcast, it sounds like the bullies forgot that he was there at times, and naturally fell into their bullying habits and routines.
The stories of 6 kids (3 boys and 3 girls) are woven together over the course of the movie, moving through time and experiences as the movie marches forward. Hirsch does a great job of tying each story together with the others, showing their interconnectedness, but also giving each kid their own voice. I was definitely invested in the film emotionally from the first few minutes. The raw emotions of the people on camera are palpable and unless you’ve never been bullied at all, you can’t help but relate to the stories to some extent from first hand experience.
From a filmmaking standpoint, Bully is a well edited and put together movie. Hirsch clearly understands how to take various ideas/stories/segments and combine them to create a compelling narrative. The cinematography at times showed both brilliance and the roots of its low-budget, handheld, shot by the Director approach. Some of the handheld photography with its jittery and bumpy views, in-and-out of focus moments, and low quality, did call attention to itself, taking me out of the story. I appreciate that Hirsch probably got thrown into capturing video at times by himself and couldn’t focus on the quality of the shot and had to focus just on getting the shot so as not to interrupt the moment. But the handheld technique did feel a bit amateur and sloppy at times. It built-up in annoyance in me over the course of the film. But Hirsch was also able to capture some incredible moments and beautiful shots that might not have been caught if they had been thought about. Cinematography is always a double-edged sword in documentaries.
As a film about bullying, I wanted to experience the stories of some of the bullies as well. How did they learn their bullying behavior? What is causing them to treat other kids the way they do? While I can understand and appreciate that Hirsch wanted to just focus on the victims, I can’t help but want to delve into the other side of this issue more. And maybe another film will explore those aspects of this issue. If there is one thing I know, from first hand experience, it’s that bullying is a complex thing. Often times, those being bullies have been victims of bullying themselves. It’s a harsh Darwinesque “Survival of the fittest” world that we live in. And Bully definitely made me question my own behavior and experiences, both as a kid and as an adult.