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Debating "Bully"

Two controversies greet Bully's opening this weekend, one you've heard of, the other you probably haven't.
The DailyBully

Two controversies greet a documentary's opening this weekend. Salon is best on the one you've probably heard about; Slate uncovers another you likely haven't. Let's start with Salon's Andrew O'Hehir: "With its unerring instinct for being on the wrong side of every major social and aesthetic issue, the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings board has refused to budge off its R rating for Bully, an earnest and moving documentary made for and about tormented preteens and teenagers." And "what's really perverse, of course — not to mention cruel and repellent — is a ratings decision that ensures that the kids who most need the succor that Bully has to offer are now the least likely to see it." Further in:

Without doubt, the MPAA has handed Bully director Lee Hirsch and Harvey Weinstein, whose company is releasing the film, a formidable marketing weapon and a tremendous amount of free publicity…. Mind you, there's no one in show business who knows how to sell a movie from a maverick or outsider position better than Harvey Weinstein. He has apparently persuaded AMC, the second-largest theater chain in North America, to screen Bully in some locations, and it's possible other exhibitors will follow suit. But while the pissing contest between Weinstein and the MPAA should make for good spectator sport — and may further erode the MPAA's power, which is certainly welcome — it's still true that middle schools and high schools won't be able to screen Bully for their students, and that in most cases theaters showing it won't admit unaccompanied teenagers.

Adam Chandler: "To help us unpack this situation, Salon has enlisted Kirby Dick, a filmmaker whose 2006 documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated examined the MPAA and its controversial ratings system. Dick's film explores how films are rated, noting the uneven relationships between sex and violence, heterosexual and homosexual subject matter, and the difference between major Hollywood releases and independent films in garnering vertiginously different ratings from the MPAA." Dick is, of course, not only critical of this particular decision but also of the ongoing secrecy as to who's on the board and what their criteria are: "I made [This Film Is Not Yet Rated] six years ago and people still don't know how this thing works. It's not because people haven't tried; it's because there isn't any information on this. This is a completely nontransparent system and that suits the MPAA just perfectly."

On to Emily Bazelon in Slate: "I was prepared to love this movie for offering an in-depth take on a difficult problem that I've been covering for a few years. And I did love parts of it — the parts about children who face troubles from their peers but also show inspiring resilience. But the movie's depiction of two boys who committed suicide is utterly one-sided, factually questionable, and could pose a real risk to some vulnerable young viewers." That's a pretty serious charge, but Bazelon has done the investigative reporting to back it up. In short, her focus is on the suicide of 17-year-old Tyler Long, whose history of mental health problems is evidently ignored in Bully.

She confronts Hirsh, who essentially slips away once Bazelon's questions become specific, and consults Ann Haas, a senior project specialist for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, who argues, "To leave Tyler's mental health problems out of the film is an egregious omission. It is really misinformation. The filmmakers' had the opportunity to present bullying as a trigger, as one factor that played a role in a young person's suicide. But to draw a direct line without referencing anything else — I'm appalled, honestly."

And what does it matter? Bazelon: "There are real people on the receiving end of these blame campaigns, campaigns that certain members of the media are all too eager to embrace. Reviews of the movie thus far have assumed that Hirsch's version of the story is complete and true, with no mentions of the ongoing court battle. Just as important, the stated mission of this movie is to portray the problem of bullying honestly and accurately. By taking the parents' side so completely, and leaving out all the information that doesn't fit his narrative, Hirsch oversimplifies and distorts. His film is supposed to be a teaching tool, yet it offers some serious misimpressions about the connection between bullying and suicide, misimpressions that could have real effects on young viewers."


To be fair, not all reviews have skimmed over the facts. "In an attempt to present its subjects in the most positive and unquestionable light, Bully omits or glosses over relevant details," writes Sam Adams at the AV Club, where he then mentions the mental health histories of Long and another subject, Alex. Also: "The case of 14-year-old Ja'Meya, who was incarcerated after drawing a gun on her tormentors, as well as everyone else on her school bus, is presented with such circumspection that it's rendered almost incomprehensible; her actions are explained in a few vague sentences that hardly measure up to the severity of her crime. Calling some of what happened to Kelby bullying, by contrast, actually understates the case. She describes an incident in which she stepped in front of a minivan filled with classmates who'd been verbally assaulting her, intending to confront them, and they instead stepped on the gas, slamming her into the windshield. That's not bullying, that's attempted murder."

As for Bully as a film, its "focus shifts toward a Stand for the Silent rally — and that's when the film's real aims become clear," writes Time Out New York's David Fear. "This antibullying advocacy group could not be more well-intentioned or needed, but suddenly, the sneaking suspicion that you've merely been watching an extended PSA for the grassroots organization starts to take hold. Awareness will be raised — which doesn't mean Hirsch hasn't delivered the artiest infomercial ever."

The New York Times' AO Scott craves "more analysis, a more explicit discussion of how the problem of bullying is connected to the broader issues of homophobia, education and violence in American life. But those issues are embedded in every story the film has to tell. Its primary intent is to stir feelings rather than to construct theories or make arguments, and its primary audience is not middle-aged intellectuals but middle-school students caught in the middle of the crisis it so powerfully illuminates."

"Bully is hardly persuasive as a call to action," writes Movieline's Stephanie Zacharek, "not because it isn't emotionally affecting (it is), but because it's so adamantly preaching to the converted."

More from David Denby (New Yorker), David Edelstein (New York), Kalvin Henely (Slant, 2.5/4) and Benjamin Mercer (Voice). And Karen Nicoletti talks with Hirsch for Movieline.

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The problem with solving social issues with agitprop movies is that the nature of post-millennial agitprop encourages a kind of flavor-of-the-month approach. If “Bully” becomes the spearhead of the anti-bullying campaign, I’m afraid it will go the way of other heavy-CNN-rotation issues, from Middle Eastern freedom to Occupiers to troubled Iraq/Afghanistan vets. The bullying problem needs more than “Bully.”
@pmarasa – I agree. It feels like this film is being rolled out in a way that sets it up to be quickly forgotten in favor of the next shiny pop culture object. The way the filmmakers have apparently structured the film indicates that they don’t want to explore the subject in more depth than it deserves; from the responsibility of all parties to the mental health of the victims. I can’t say this is the case, as I have not seen the film.

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