'Bully' and the Plight of the Well-Intentioned Documentary

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The new films tells a compelling tale about kids picking on kids, but will it have a lasting impact?

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Alex Rain in "Bully" The Weinstein Company

Bully may go down in history for the controversy over its MPAA rating, though, of course, its makers were hoping for a different kind of legacy. A highly personal project from writer/director Lee Hirsch about the effects of bullying, it's meant as both a comfort to the bullied and a call to action. But with the decision to release the film unrated, after a failed attempt to appeal to the MPAA to reduce the rating from R to PG-13, the movie will be shut out of a number of major chains (though Regal and AMC are making exceptions). That's a shame, because the track record for activist documentaries has shown that for these films to really endure, they need to make their impact early and often.

Think, for a moment, of the most memorable documentaries ever made, the ones that have survived years—even decades—without their subjects lessening in relevance or interest. Highly focused examinations of people, places, and lifestyles that are foreign but fascinating to most audiences would dominate that list, especially films with particularly distinctive styles. The collected works of the Maysles Brothers, Errol Morris, Fredrick Wiseman, and Werner Herzog would all be up there, along with consistently exalted movies like Sherman's March, Hoop Dreams, and Koyaanisqatsi, or classic music and sports docs like Woodstock, The Last Waltz, and When We Were Kings.

What nearly all of those films have in common is the fact that they aren't really tied to a cause and don't try to call the viewer to action. Sure, there are great political and social awareness documentaries that have stood the test of time—Harlan County, USA, or Hearts and Minds—but these aren't specifically activist works. Unlike, say, An Inconvenient Truth, these films don't try to get the viewer to do anything.

Activist documentaries that do linger in the memory beyond their initial release are rather few and far between. The aforementioned Al Gore/Davis Guggenheim climate change film is still talked about, even if it seems mostly to come up as a dismissive offhand political reference point for those arguing against the contentions of climate scientists.

Then there's the case of Michael Moore. Surely films like Roger & Me, Bowling for Columbine, and Fahrenheit 9/11 continue to exist in the collective movie-going conscience. But Moore's reputation can get in the way when thinking about him. While his life and public appearances are strongly geared towards activism, those films, though having a distinctive political point of view, are largely examinations of existing or past sociopolitical issues. Columbine is perhaps the most misconstrued, often thought of as a strident anti-gun screed when it's nothing of the sort: It raises more questions about our national character than it does try to drive political action.

Consider, on the other hand, the film of Moore's that is arguably the most specifically designed to initiate change: Sicko. Given the primacy of the national debate over health care during the past few years, this film would seem an obvious reference and rallying point for supporters of a single-payer system. Yet it seems to have quickly slipped out of the conversation in ways that his earlier films have not, demonstrating that even if a documentary is high-profile and highly controversial, advocacy can seriously limit the length of its reach.

Just looking back over Oscar nominated documentaries over the past few years reveals a number of works that burned brightly but briefly. I'd argue that the films like The Cove, Gasland, and Food, Inc. are far less likely to be talked about as often ten years from now than their less activist co-nominees like Restrepo, Man on Wire, or Jesus Camp.

'An Inconvenient Truth' aside, activist documentaries that linger in the memory beyond their initial release are rare.

So what of Bully's long-term potential? What the film has going for it is that despite being tied directly to action—it's as much a springboard for a massive social media and national activism campaign as it is a singular documentary—there are deeply felt, deeply moving, entirely relatable stories on display here. Bullying also isn't an issue du jour. It goes back as long as people have had the capacity for cruelty towards those who are weaker or different. As such, it's hardly controversial, either; apart from a contingent of kids-will-be-kids voices who are perhaps in denial about problems as serious the film portrays, it would be hard to find anyone to advocate for the pro-bully side of the aisle.

Hirsch, despite his personal connection to the material as a victim of bullying himself, smartly keeps himself out of the film and instead concentrates on the stories of the kids, showing the diversity of causes and reactions to bullying that are out there. This includes Kelby, a 16-year-old Oklahoman who became a pariah to both her classmates and her teachers when she came out as a lesbian. There's Ja'Meya, a 14-year-old Mississippi girl who felt so powerless to deal with her tormenters that she brandished her mother's gun at them just to make it stop. And there are two sets of parents whose children committed suicide to end the bullying.

The emotional center of the film is perhaps Alex, a 12-year-old Iowa boy constantly picked on for looking different. He convinces himself that these are just his friends roughhousing with him so that he won't have to admit the abuse to his parents. One of the film's most subtly affecting moments finds him waiting at a school bus stop while trying to socialize with a couple of kids who are already beginning to pick on him. The microphone Hirsch has on Alex picks up his uneven, anxious breathing, a surer sign of his discomfort than anything he could say.

At one point in the film, Kelby admits that despite her efforts to stay strong, and to be a lonely voice for changing attitudes at her school and in her small town, that maybe it's too much for one person to take on. What Bully does is offer viewers the potential to connect a growing network of like-minded people who refuse to stand for bullying anymore, and does so with elegant storytelling. While the latter may have more to do with whether it endures as a film, its lasting legacy is its role in the former. Even if the MPAA's shortsightedness diminishes the film's potential impact, it's obvious from the passion of the organizers that Hirsch gives voice to at the end of the documentary that this movement larger than just a movie, and that any impact it has is a good one. By that measure, Bully is a success, regardless of whether people are still watching it in 10 or 20 years.

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Ian Buckwalter is a freelance film writer based in Washington, D.C. He contributes regularly to NPR, Washingtonian, and DCist.

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