The best documentaries are the ones that resonate and prove to be the most thought-provoking. Lee Hirsch’s film, Bully manages to tick both of these boxes. It is ultimately a fly-on-the-wall account filled with the testimonies of victims of bullying, something that is proving to be an insidious problem.

The documentary follows Alex, a sweet but gangly and awkward 12-year old. Dubbed “Fish face”, he is taunted daily by his peers and some nasty, older kids. It has reached the point where he is a combination of feeling numb; wanting to give in and become a bully himself; or considers them “mates” because he wouldn’t have any friends without them. It’s heart wrenching stuff to watch his parents who are oblivious to their child’s plight and how he is let down by a school system that is supposed to educate, not humiliate.

Alex is not alone. Kelby is 16 and was the star, basketball player in a small town of sanctimonious, religious folk. After she comes out as a lesbian she becomes a social pariah. Another victim is Ja’Maya, a bright, 14 year old who gets so fed up with her aggressors that she steals her mother’s loaded gun and brandishes it on the school bus. She had simply wanted to scare the antagonists, but winds up in juvenile detention.

The film’s director, Lee Hirsch knows first-hand what it is like to be bullied. He too suffered, just like these vulnerable children. Perhaps because of this, he adopts a more emotive point-of-view in the presentation. Instead of depicting just concrete facts and figures, he gets straight to the heart of the problem by showing the three victims’ daily lives.

The other part of this story details two families who are having to live without their two young sons because they killed themselves when the torment became too much. This part is particularly gut-wrenching as we see the families of Ty Smalley (aged 11) and Tyler Long (aged 17) deal with the grief and loss of these two beautiful lives cut so needlessly short. The families are admirable in that they have now taken up the anti-bullying cause by campaigning and general activism, including holding vigils in memory of their sons and other victims.

Bully makes for emotional viewing that will cause you to be equally mad and wish that you could do something. But despite this, the film is not a perfect rendering of the issue. The interview subjects are from a narrow sample as all five families live in the American mid-west (Oklahoma, Georgia and Iowa). As such, it feels like the story is a tad incomplete because this is a cruel matter happening all around the world. There is also a lack of discussion with experts and even the bullies themselves. But although it fails at being comprehensive, it is at least some important filmmaking that tugs at your heartstrings.

Bully is emotionally stirring and an absolutely heartbreaking view of a global epidemic and one that looks set to rise with the increase in cyberbullying. It is personal and observational, a sobering account of the situation where the underlying messages of the need for open dialogue and action overrule the minor flaws in the presentation. Ultimately, Bully is an intimate and distressing mirror to our society and its faults.


Review score: 4 stars

Originally published on 13 August 2012 at the following website:

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