TCFF REVIEW: ‘The Bully Project’ (2012)

The Bully Project is playing as part of the Twin Cities Film Festival, which runs from September 20-25, 2011.

Grade: B

When introducing his film The Bully Project as the opening night selection at the Twin Cities Film Festival, director Lee Hirsch read a story that instantly brought the dire epidemic of school bullying to the home front – the day before the screening in a Minnesota town less than 80 miles away from the theatre an 11-year old boy killed himself after being a victim of school bullying. This tragic story eerily echoes the opening of the film where Hirsch documents a family that has just lost their 17-year old son to suicide caused by bullying. The stakes are incredibly high and the problem that might be dismissed by some as “boys being boys” has spiraled out of control.

The Bully Project follows five students from around the country who are victims of bullying. With little help from school administrators to deal with the cruelty being perpetrated on them by their peers, each student is forced to react in their own way. Some choose to force a smile despite being torn apart inside like in the cases of Kelby, an openly gay student from Oklahoma, and Alex, a middle school student from Iowa. Others resort to potential violence against their classmates like in the case of Ja’Meya, a 14-year old from Mississippi was so fed up with being picked on that she threatened her bullies with her mother’s gun. Most tragically of all, there are some who become so disenfranchised that they choose to take their own life, like in the case of 17-year old Tyler Long of Georgia and 11-year old Ty Field-Smalley of Oklahoma.

Lee Hirsch gets remarkable access to schools to present a fly-on-the-wall view of actual bullying scenarios. We see numerous bus rides with Alex where getting punched, choked, and spit at seems like a daily occurrence. On a better day, Alex gets home and excitedly tells his mother “nobody did anything to me today.” It becomes clear that this bullying has been a lifelong problem for Alex, twisting his worldview into thinking it is normal. When his mother tells him that people who beat him up are not his friends he looks stunned and asks, “then what friends do I have?”

Hirsch uses Alex and the other students in the film as a microcosm for bullying across the country. There are no animated charts or measurable statistics about what percentage of students report being exposed to bullying, but there doesn’t need to be when the footage is real. Hirsch points his cameras at school administrators as the main source of the bullying problem in that they turn a blind eye, rather than coming to the aid of the weak. One particular administrator is filmed scolding a victim for not shaking hands with his bully after getting beat up. Later she meets with Alex’s parents and is more concerned with showing off pictures of her granddaughter than helping one of her own students.

This harsh criticism of the school’s approach to bullying is where the film felt incomplete. Change obviously needs to occur in the schools, but there was no investigation into the policies that exist towards bullying in schools and whether or not the rules were being followed. There also has to be more that teachers and administrators can do than just come to aid of their students who are victims. None of the film was from the perspective of the bullies themselves and no time was given to the question of why bullying occurs in the first place.

That investigation may be for another movie. As it exists, The Bully Project is very effective at raising awareness for its cause. Everybody who attended public school remembers the long uncomfortable bus rides that we see in the film and every teacher knows a student like Alex. My wife, an 11th grade English teacher, was at the screening with me and she said each of her classes has at least one Alex. She thinks the film is a must watch for high school and middle school students because while not everyone is a victim of bullying, everyone has the power to stop it.

Bottom Line: The Bully Project is a heartbreaking, if incomplete examination into one of the most dangerous epidemics facing our schools today.

The Bully Project will be in theatres in the U.S. on March 9, 2012.

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