Monday, April 23, 2012


Alex stares a hold into the back of the bus seat in front of him. The boy next to him is talking with friends, when suddenly he raises a fist and brings it down hard on Alex's shoulder. Alex flinches, stares at the provoker, then says nothing. It's a typical experience for Alex, who is one of the central stories in the documentary Bully. The film has had a cloud of controversy surrounding it, at first rated R by the MPAA for its strong language. After all, these are teenage bullies saying the things that teenage bullies say. It's not heart-warming stuff. The producers fought the rating, saying that the very audience who needs to see the film--teens and families--couldn't view the film. The MPAA came back by declaring Bully "not rated," which is almost a worst sentence, putting it in the same ranks as NC-17 films. The film was reedited and given a PG-13 rating in the hopes that more audiences will see the life of Alex and others.

The film follows a number of families who have experienced bullying. A few of these families have children who committed suicide after being repeatedly bullied. Void of hope that the systems of justice and protection would help them, they took their own lives. They didn't seem to think anyone noticed or understood. Their indictment is quite fair. Most of the adults in Bully appear clueless, helpless, and reveal a deep lack of understanding or engagement with the teens. In one particular scene, a principal pulls aside two boys who have been fighting and inquires what's going on. She tells them to stop fighting and to shake hands over it. One boy appears apologetic, offering a hand. The other refuses, clearly still upset and pained by the entire experience. The principal allows the first boy to leave, but holds on to the second for a further scolding.

Who was the bully in this scenario? The first boy, who had initiated the fight, which has been one of many he has initiated with the victim. He played his political cards right and was allowed to walk while the victim was given a series of stern warnings. When the victim tries to explain the stressful situation through tears, the principal can offer no words of comfort or wisdom. She tells him "you're just as bad as he is" for not offering his hand to shake. Who offers their hand to an unapologetic attacker? The kid goes away frustrated, while the principal seems exasperated with his unwillingness to learn from her.

A girl who comes out as a lesbian is shunned and bullied not only by her classmates, but by her teachers as well. The entire small-town community rejects her family as well. Their church and neighbors won't even make eye contact with the parents any more. Bullying can has systemic implications driven by ignorance and judgment.

Bully is a deeply sympathetic film as it focuses on the lives and experiences of a few families. While affecting, this focus also limits the scope of the film to these small groups of people. No bully's story is told. There is a lack of research into cultural and systemic causes and implications for bullying. I watched Bully to have a deeper understanding of the problem in order to find tangible solutions, and came up wanting. This is more like an advocacy film that fosters emotional connections to the problem of bullying rather than offering comprehensive information or practical application. The film's conclusions are a quite facile, with a few families meeting outside of city halls and letting balloons go, sharing dime-store wisdom akin to "let's all just get along." It's touching, but is it the best answer?

In the fascinating film Mean Creek, a cadre of friends invite a bully on a boating trip down a river, intending revenge. While the bully is crass and socially inept, one cannot help but feel compassion as his story is slowly revealed over the course of the journey. The victims are hurting and lonely, but so is this young man. His only means of attention and feeling a sense of strength is by hurting others; the abused only knows how to abuse. He is just looking for a friend, not realizing that the roles have reversed and he will soon become the victim. Bullies are human beings too, children and young people that are hurting and alone. They need grace and guidance and compassion, too.

Both films reveal the primary problem: a severe lack of understanding and engagement from adults. In both films, young people are essentially left to fend for themselves while teachers, principals, bus drivers, law enforcement, and parents all passively wonder what is going on. Many adults get frustrated with the victims--"why didn't you just tell someone?" they demand. They did, numerous times. No one truly listened. When no one ever listens, after a while the message is clear: I must navigate this world on my own. If parents and adults would choose to fully listen, to understand and engage with young people, coming alongside them and journeying with them through life, perhaps these systems of violence would dissipate.

Every parent, educator, pastor, youth worker, and teen should view Bully. Just don't view it alone. Watch it as a family, as a youth group, as the volunteer team in the youth ministry, as the pastoral team. The film doesn't offer many tangible answers, but it does paint a striking picture of the problem that is right in front of our faces. Talk about possible solutions and action steps that need to be taken. Scripture offers a solution: take care of the least of these. God's heart is for the poor and downtrodden and marginalized. Jesus declared that when you love one of the least of these, you are loving him. The least of these desperately need some good news--that there is a God who is with them and for them, and he has sent his Son to lovingly share life with those who are broken and alone. The God of the universe was himself bullied, unjustly beaten and crucified, abandoned by his friends in the darkest hour. He knows and understands and cares. One victim in Bully quips, "I don't believe in luck, but I do believe in hope." Jesus does, too.

Find out where Bully is playing in your city.

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