At the Movies

Directed by Lee Hirsch

Review by Tony Sheppard and Malcolm Maclachlan

Malcolm: As is becoming usual for flashpoint issues in our society, one of the most insightful things said recently about “bullying” came from a comedian, this time John Fugelsang ( If you want to do something about the problem, he says, stop using such a trivial-sounding word.

“Bullying is a flaccid, outdated, Archies Comics term,” Fugelsang says, before suggesting “criminal harassment.”

Though for much of this film, plain old “assault” works better. Watching Alex, the main victim shown in “Bully,” getting slapped, punched, strangled and threatened with death on a school bus, the idea that popped into my head was that if an adult tried to do any of these things to someone on a city bus, they’d probably find themselves in a jail cell. I bet a lot of these young scumbags will find themselves in prison cells anyway in coming years—getting them involved in the criminal justice system now might be doing them a favor. It’s not like there’s a lack of evidence.

Tony: I also thought such a comparison between youth and adult crimes was interesting – especially in light of the recent shooting in Florida and that State’s “stand your ground” law.  In the one instance where a kid in this film pulls a gun on her tormentors, she’s locked up for months in a juvenile facility, charged with 45 felonies (including imprisonment and assault for every other kid on her bus).  There are also laws that allow for battered spouses to take action, but bullied kids are largely powerless to act.

Malcolm: It also brought back memories of growing up in the South. I wasn’t really bullied as a kid, but my memory of South Carolina in the 1970s and 80s is that the attitude towards bullying and fighting was boys-will-be-boys, fight for yourself, why are you bothering us with this, etc. So it’s not like this is pointing out a new problem. Rather, our society has evolved to a point where we think this is a problem (and if evolution isn’t real, why do kids act so much like troops of baboons?).

Tony: And you get that attitude in the film.  In fact, perhaps the film’s strongest and most worrisome moments are not in the bullying itself, but rather in the sheer cluelessness of the adults that are supposedly in charge of these kids.  It’s easy to think of bullying incidents wherein a kid gets picked on or beaten and nobody knows anything about it until it’s too late.  But most of the cases in this film involve reported problems and school officials who allegedly did little or nothing to help, with several examples given in which teachers or other adults were either present or even involved in the abuse.

However, the film is limited to a small number of specific cases with no sense of scale given.  There are no statistics quoted and no discussion of the phenomenon, beyond the shared stories and the kids that are followed with cameras.  Not that those stories aren’t valid – but it would be easy for some dismissive viewers to walk away thinking this is a small-scale problem, or one that’s limited to rural areas.  Indeed, some of the adults in the film, like a teacher who describes kids on a school bus as being “good as gold,” would probably dismiss the broader scope.

Malcolm: As a documentary work, I’d echo Tony’s thoughts that this is a decent documentary lifted up by having a very compelling subject. It does have some things going for it—it’s well-shot, with the shaky-camera immediacy of “Waiting for Superman” (another compelling but flawed film about the plight of kids). It uses music well, and shows-rather-then tells most of the time—particularly when it comes to a school administrator who is so cheerfully, reprehensibly, blame-the-victim clueless you want to punch her.

But I would also have liked some larger context—more statistics, more of a thematic umbrella. Too much of the film is focused on regretful parents. While it’s interesting to see how parents change from the experience of having a bullied kid, it was always more interesting to hear it from the kids themselves. Also, it seemed to mainly focus on a particular mode of bullying, boys being attacked physically. While this is horrible, it’s not really complicated. If you have evidence of assault (and here we do), the attackers should be expelled and charged with crimes—and if school administrators don’t make this happen, they should lose their jobs and be charged with crimes as well. The more subtle end of the bullying spectrum, verbal and emotional abuse, gets less attention.

Tony: Yes – there are scenes where you see one of the boys just being taken advantage of repeatedly, as another kid eats off his lunch tray and he then sits alone eating what’s left.  And that kind of combined abuse and rejection can be as damaging over time as physical attacks.

Malcolm: There are clear differences in why the kids shown are bullied, and it also seems pretty clear they face different likely life outcomes. At one end is Kelby, who appears to get verbal abuse solely for the fact that she’s a lesbian. It’s pretty bad, but you get the feeling she’ll have the last laugh. She’s outgoing, athletic and attractive. Assuming she can overcome the trauma, once she gets to even a medium-sized city, she’ll be fine. The very fact that her lesbianism will drive her to bigger city may result in her having a better life than her tormenters. Alex, meanwhile, was a premature baby who is very small, possibly learning disabled, and socially clueless. We can marvel at his abuse and at his well-meaning father who scolds him for not fighting back, but one has to wonder what he’s even doing in a mainstream classroom at with all his vulnerabilities. 

Tony: I found the face of Alex to be one of the most symbolic visuals in the film.  He has an unconventional look that causes much of the teasing that he endures and, as Malcolm says, he’s socially clueless enough to think that any attention is good attention even when it’s abusive (“I think when he’s strangling me he’s messing around.”).  But his expressions range from abject fear at the idea of something that ought to be as fear-free as simply going to school, to joy and laughter at home with his family.  He’s a neat, funny little kid who tragically ends up looking like he’s got a combination of PTSD and Stockholm Syndrome – mostly from hellish bus rides (“I’m starting to think I don’t feel anything any more.”).

For Kelby, the abuse spread further, with her entire family being ostracized.  And yet she put on a brave face for the camera and her friends, at one point joking about being intentionally run down by complaining that she didn’t get hit “by something cool like a Jeep” but instead getting hit by a minivan. 

Malcolm: In a final note, it’s pretty pathetic that this film nearly got an R rating for using the F-word. It shows real violence against children, for f—s sake. Though I guess if the idea is to show that our society has the wrong priorities, that effing sums it up pretty well. 

Tony: Agreed – I wrote about this when “The Hunger Games” opened, and how it’s apparently OK to show the systematic and government sponsored fictional slaughter of teenagers to other teenagers, for fun, but it’s not OK to include real life swearing in a documentary that’s actually intended to benefit that same demographic.  

By Tony Sheppard

“Blue Li
ke Jazz”
In “Bully,” a young lesbian is ostracized in her religious hometown and in an odd coincidence, in “Blue Like Jazz,” a young man finds himself in an place where he’s subject to being ostracized for his religion.  It tells the autobiographical story of Donald Miller as he turns his back on his Texas Baptist roots and a Christian College scholarship, and heads across country to Reed College in Portland, Oregon – a decidedly more bohemian environment.  This decision comes at the urging of his largely absentee father, and following a discovery that’s somewhat disillusioning at church.  This is an overtly Christian-themed film and will likely appeal to those believers who have found themselves questioning their own faith at a time or times in their lives – but it’s also likely to be a painfully preachy experience for non-religious viewers.

“The Cabin in the Woods”
There’s far more going on here than just another film about a group of college students who somehow manage to find the creepiest place imaginable (complete with the requisite creepy guy at the gas station on the way) for a quiet weekend away.  Early on, we also see a team of people in a control facility of some kind who seem to be keeping tabs on our would-be vacationers.  It’s an easy story to spoil and so I’ll simply point out that it was written by Joss Whedon who also wrote the original “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” the “Buffy” TV show that followed, “Angel,” “Firefly,” and who wrote and directed the upcoming “The Avengers” – so it’s fair to expect both strong thematic elements and several doses of humor along the way.  It’s a film that manages to follow the formula of teen horror stories while also parodying a broader horror genre – including assorted Japanese films.  As such, it should appeal both to genre fans and to those who wouldn’t normally select a movie such as this but who, perhaps, enjoyed “Shaun of the Dead” or “Attack the Block.” 

This Israeli nominee in the Best Foreign Language Oscar category focuses on a father and son who both study historical aspects of Jewish scriptures.  That said, to some extent it could be translated to any situation in which a parent or mentor finds themselves being eclipsed by the success of their younger counterpart – especially a situation in which the older individual envies that success, yet doesn’t actually respect the work that earned it.  Here, the father has worked for decades on a very specific line of research with his greatest recognition coming in the form of the titular “footnote” citation in another scholar’s work – whereas the son has popularized related content in a less rigorous but far more prolific style.  It’s essentially a multi-dimensional character study that encompasses jealousy, rivalry, and anger – but also love, respect, and loyalty.  It’s also an interesting blend of serious drama and light, witty asides that manage to keep it from bogging down in family dysfunction.

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