There are two sides to every story, though not in the documentary "Bully," a deeply moving but highly selective look at the effects of bullying on children and teenagers. It's an important and valuable film, especially at a time when headlines about young suicides seem fairly routine. But "Bully" ignores the bulliers, a choice that plays to our sympathies but may undermine the movie's potential to effect change.
Equal representation may not be a priority for the people in this film, and understandably so. David Long, a Georgia ex-military man, sits for an interview just weeks after his teenage son, Tyler, hanged himself, and the fresh grief on his face is something you won't soon forget. Kelby, a 16-year-old in Oklahoma, feigns nonchalance recalling her schoolwide rejection after coming out as gay. Alex, a sweet, quirky 12-year-old regularly abused on his school bus in Sioux City, Iowa, states flatly, "I'm starting to think I don't feel anything anymore."
Director Lee Hirsch (a Rockville Centre native) captures Alex's abuse on camera, a scene of physical and verbal aggression that helped earn this film an initial R rating. (That scene remains intact, though profanity elsewhere in the film has been edited for a PG-13 rating.) The most shocking footage, though, is of a meeting between Alex's parents and an assistant principal, Kim Lockwood, who does a disgustingly good job of snowing over the problem. Several troublemakers eventually are called on the carpet, but it's too late: Those autopilot smiles are what you'll remember.
It may sound odd to accuse "Bully" of having an agenda -- surely no one is for child-on-child violence -- but it does. Hirsch never interviews any tormentors, leaving them unnamed, unheard and too easily demonized. Who are these children? What kind of families do they come from? Is it possible they're much like our own? "Bully" doesn't want to understand the problem, only stamp it out. That approach may only allow it to persist.
PLOT A documentary about five real-life bullying victims and their parents.
RATING PG-13 (brief but strong language)
BOTTOM LINE Moving and powerful, but its one-sided approach leaves us no wiser about a troubling social problem.