Alex will break your heart. The Iowa middle schooler so aches to be liked that when an older boy on the school bus threatens to kill him, he doesn’t appreciate the danger. As he puts it to his mother, Jackie, “If you say these people aren’t my friends, then what friends do I have?”
By the time the documentarians shadowing Alex alert his parents the threats on the bus have escalated to physical violence, it’s clear just how powerful Bully is – and how flawed.
The intensely painful film (being released unrated after initially receiving a controversial, ridiculous R rating) focuses on Alex, Kelby and Ja’Meya, all victims of bullying, as well as Ty and Tyler, who committed suicide after being targeted.
Alex, though, is the central figure and the only one assaulted onscreen, in a scene that raises serious questions: Why didn’t the filmmakers stop the attack? How do we know the presumed bullies weren’t acting out for the cameras? Is Alex okay with this footage going public? According to director Lee Hirsch, he is: “Alex wanted the world to know what happens to kids who are bullied,” Hirsch has said.
While the film fails to explore why kids behave so monstrously to each other, it does capture the terror and isolation of victims. It also exposes the flaws in schools ill-equipped to handle the problem, particularly in scenes with Alex’s assistant principal Kim Lockwood, who fumbles chances to help tortured kids. (I do, however, understand her frustration when she all but begs, “Tell me how to fix this.”)
Bully may be overambitious and naive, but by turning its cameras on a shameful issue, it just might help all of us Alexes.