Bully Movie

Movie Review: Bully

bully dvdReel Rating: 4 out of 5 Reels
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense thematic material, disturbing content, and some strong language – all involving kids (edited from R for re-rating) 
Released in Theaters: March 30, 2012
Released on DVD: Feb. 12, 2013
Genre: Documentary
Runtime: 94 minutes
Directed by: Lee Hirsch
Cast: Ja’Meya Jackson; Kelby, Londa and Bob Johnson; Alex, Jackie, Philip, Maya, Jada, Ethan and Logan Libby; Kim Lockwood; David, Tina, Teryn and Troy Long; Devon Matthews; Barbara Primer; Kirk and Laura Smalley; Trey Wallace
Official Site: The Bully Project

Buy It: Bully [Blu-ray]

Get this review for your own web site or magazine

It’s my policy to not review R-rated films for my family movie syndicators, and in most instances, with the possible exception of The King’s Speech, I’ve never questioned that policy. So I polled my syndicators and asked if they would be opposed to a review of Bully, a documentary that looks at bullying in school systems across the country. The film was initially rated R for language, but a campaign during the course of the year create a PG-13 version.

The response was overwhelmingly in favor of me doing the review. Based on news reports and personal accounts, it seems clear that bullying has become more and more rampant in schools, many times with tragic consequences.

According to the film’s official site, http://www.thebullyproject.com, more than 13 million American kids will be bullied this year, making it the most common form of violence experienced by young people in the nation.

But the documentary doesn’t just give facts and figures. Filmed during the 2009-2010 school year, the film offers a close-up look at five kids who’ve been bullied and how it’s affected them. It also documents how their families have been affected, as well as the responses – or in some cases, non-responses — of teachers, administrators and community members.

The kids’ stories are heartbreaking. Alex Libby is a sweet-natured 12-year-old boy in Sioux City, Iowa, who’s tormented by bullies on the bus ride to and from school. He assures his parents that the kids are only “messing with him,” but they don’t know the full extent of those threats, which include horrible slurs, curses and threats. Things only get worse as Alex begins middle school. It’s heart-wrenching when he tells his parents that if these kids aren’t his friends, then he doesn’t have any friends.

Bully Movie
Alex Libby of Bully Movie

Ever since 16-year-old Kelby Johnson came out as a lesbian, she and her family have been treated like pariahs in their small town of Tuttle, Oklahoma. Once a star athlete, Kelby was forced out of her sports teams and is the target of hatred from both classmates and teachers. Her parents offered to move to a more open community, but the gutsy teen, bolstered by an adoring girlfriend and a few close friends, resolves to stay and make a difference. Like Alex, she’s a sweet girl who smiles all the time, despite the bullying.

Ja’Meya Jackson is a quiet 14-year-old girl in Yazoo County, Mississippi. Picked on relentlessly during her hour-long bus rides to and from school, one day she snaps, takes a loaded handgun from her mom’s closet, and brandishes it at the kids on the bus. Ja’Meya is charged with multiple felony counts and lands in a juvenile detention facility.

In October 2009, 17-year-old Tyler Long of Murray County, Georgia, hanged himself after years of bullying from classmates and indifference from school officials. As his parents, David and Tina Long, mourn the loss of their son and demand accountability from the school, his death sparks a war in the community.

And then there’s Kirk and Laura Smalley. Following the bullying-related suicide of their 11-year-old son, they’re determined to prevent other kids from suffering a similar fate. Kirk launches an anti-bullying organization, Stand for the Silent, and coordinates a series of vigils to spark a change across the country.

Of course, I came home and immediately asked my two teenagers if they’ve encountered bullies in our local school system here in Traverse City, Michigan. They said they haven’t, which could mean a couple of things: it’s there and they just don’t see it, or bullying is more prevalent in certain parts of the country. I hope it’s the second one.

But clearly, since Bully was filmed in real time over the course of a school year, it’s an example of what some kids see and hear every day. The director, Lee Hirsch, did a Skype interview with the folks in the theater after the screening, and he said that after a while, people just ignored the cameras. It drills home the point that bullying is so ingrained in some kids that they’ll do it even with a camera pointed at them.

I’m glad Bully earned a PG-13 rating, because the very people this film would help – school-aged kids – need to see it. A PG-13 rating allows the film to be shown in schools in a controlled setting, giving teachers the opportunity to open a discussion with the kids. Ultimately, the film encourages kids to “stand up, not stand by,” and reinforces the fact that everyone can make a difference, and “everything starts with one.”

I realize you can only fit so much into a documentary, but I would have liked to see more about the lives and motivations of the bullies themselves. What sort of home life do they have that causes them to be so vicious to other students? And why aren’t school administrators doing more to stop bullying? Parents expect school systems to be a safe place for their kids, and yet the administrators in this film come across as unhelpful, inflexible, and just plain oblivious to bullying.

Visit the film’s Facebook page and official site to learn more about the film and The Bully Project, as well as how you can make a difference in your own school system and community.


Sex/Nudity: A gay teen is bullied.

Violence/Gore. Teen/tween suicide is a focal point, with families and friends mourning the loss of their loved ones. Kids recount incidents of physical, verbal and emotional abuse, including choking, stabbing with pencils, hitting, punching, shoving and threats. One teen has a history of cutting and suicide attempts. One boy tells a younger boy on the bus that he’ll shove a broomstick up his rear and cut him with a knife. A girl ends up in juvenile detention after being pushed too far and brandishing a gun at her tormenters on the bus. Guns are shown in a hunting context.

Profanity: Language is what landed this film an R rating, including several uses of “f**k,” “s**t,” a**,” “p***y,” “b*tch,” and many derogatory terms for homosexuals, including “f*g.” Brutal language and threats include an older boy on a school bus telling a younger boy, “I’ll f**king end you and shove a broomstick up your a** … I’ll cut your face off and s**t.”

Drugs/Alcohol: None.

One Reel – Even the Force can’t save it.
Two Reels – Coulda been a contender
Three Reels – Something to talk about.
Four Reels – You want the truth? Great flick!
Five Reels – Wow! The stuff dreams are made of.


4 responses to “Movie Review: Bully”

  1. […] Director Lee Hirsch was able to capture such shocking behavior by blending into the daily life of the school and even the school bus while shooting over the course of the 2009-2010 academic year. Everyone should see this movie, whether you’re a kid, a parent, a grandparent, a teacher, a bus driver, or anyone else with the power to stop bullying. Reel Life With Jane review.  […]

  2. […] Director Lee Hirsch was able to capture such shocking behavior by blending into the daily life of the school and even the school bus while shooting over the course of the 2009-2010 academic year. Everyone should see this movie, whether you’re a kid, a parent, a grandparent, a teacher, a bus driver, or anyone else with the power to stop bullying. Reel Life With Jane review. […]

  3. Gail W Avatar

    Thanks for the review of this film. Looks very interesting. I see nothing has changed much from school days though :/ In fact it seems to have got worse.

    I was bullied in school for many years, but never really told anyone. and also turned a blind eye to other kids getting bullied as well. It was systemic bullying, and I know of even teachers who were horrible to other teachers.

    Then later on in places were I have worked the same things have happened. I think it’s a flaw of humans to look for weakness in others and to try and exploit that, sometimes consciously or without even noticing they are doing it. But it is our duty as humans to try and overcome the baseness and cruelty of life, so this does not carry on happening forever. And do stamp it out when it does.

    Anways, I hope some of these children have reached some kind of resolution or better outcome than what they were going through.

    Thanks for the review!

  4. […] campaigns to stop bullying and the 2011 movie “Bully” (read Jane’s review here), scenes of Carrie being taunted and baited by her classmates have an even more more disturbing and […]

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