‘Bully’ Review: Best Intentions Don't Always Lead to Best Movies

“Bully,” the buzzed-about documentary, says all the right things about the hot-button issue of bullying but doesn’t say them particularly well

Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous quote about going to war with the army you have and not the army you wish you had, popped into my head after I saw “Bully,” the timely documentary about school bullying that’s riding on a wave of buzz generated by a protracted battle between The Weinstein Company and the MPAA over the film’s rating.

Bullying is a serious topic, to be sure, but I can’t help wishing that a more powerful movie dealing with the subject matter were hitting theaters (and eventually, one assumes, classrooms and other educational venues) to address the problem and to prompt discussions among teens, parents, teachers, school administrators and law enforcement officials.

The intent and message of “Bully” are unimpeachable; the movie itself, unfortunately, is not.

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Director Lee Hirsch tells us several stories of individuals and families affected by bullying: a small-for-his-age preteen who gets harassed daily at school and on the bus; parents who have become activists after losing their bullied children to suicide; a girl whose coming-out as a lesbian not only lost her most of her school friends but also led to the shunning of her parents by their neighbors and fellow churchgoers; an honor student and athlete pushed so far by tormentors that she brought her mother’s gun onto a schoolbus and wound up serving time in a juvenile facility.

Where “Bully” is most effective is in capturing both the casual cruelty of high school, which can turn walks down a hallway or daily rides on the bus into stomach-clenching moments of terror, and the indifference of certain authority figures who know what assuaging things to say to concerned parents while otherwise ignoring the problem.

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This is the kind of subject matter that can be enraging or moving in the hands of the right director, but Hirsch fails to connect with either the heart or the head. “Bully” never offers a single statistic about the problem of bullying in schools, nor does it feature any interviews with the bullies themselves in an attempt to gain any sort of insight as to where this hostility takes root.

If the film connected on an emotional level, then it could be forgiven for not attempting to tackle it at an intellectual one, but it falls short even there. For every moment in which we might get swept up into the pain of these kids and their parents, there are dozens more missed opportunities, where the film’s punches just never land. The editing from story to story is often erratic and serves mainly to undercut the material’s inherent power.

It’s great that a film like “Bully” exists  and is making its way onto screens and into the national conversation.

But when such an important message is conveyed by an exceedingly flawed movie, it feels like a missed opportunity.