Harvey Weinstein howled bloody murder when the MPAA slapped an R rating on Bully, a documentary that dares to take a stand against child-on-child intimidation and violence. While obviously self-interested (he’s distributing the film and wants the whole world to see it), his argument, for once, has merit—the R, which has since been downgraded to PG-13, was ostensibly meant to protect kids under 17 from hearing a four-letter word they almost certainly hear at school every day. And if there’s any reason for Bully to be in theaters, it’s so that both bullies and the bullied can learn something from it. Certainly it has nothing of any interest to offer viewers who’ve already worked out that being mean isn’t very nice.
Ineptly, almost randomly structured, the film spends varying amounts of time with bullied kids in small towns across America—observing as they get punched and taunted on school buses, sitting in on meetings between their outraged parents and clueless administrators. It’s a diverse group, ranging from the utterly defenseless (one odd little boy thinks of his tormentors as his friends) to the arguably deranged (who’s the greater concern: kids slinging verbal abuse, or a fed-up victim who swipes her mom’s loaded handgun and threatens to blow them away?). But the bullies themselves are all but ignored, and the movie does nothing but express dismay at a situation that any sensible person would find dismaying, and that all sensible people already know exists. If you require 90 minutes of “bullying is bad,” here it is.
That may sound overly glib, but there’s so much more to documentary filmmaking than simply identifying an obvious problem and demanding that it stop. As an advocacy tool, Bully serves an important purpose; it should arguably be mandatory viewing in elementary schools. But as art or entertainment, it’s a complete failure, offering nothing more than an opportunity to feel indignant. Director Lee Hirsch doesn’t even appear to know how to keep his camera in focus (or, worse, thinks that going in and out of focus for no reason is some sort of bold aesthetic choice). The correct rating would’ve been D, for Duh.