Thursday, April 12, 2012

A powerful documentary about bullying

First the rating: The Weinstein Company planned to release the documentary Bully without a rating because the MPAA, the industry’s august watchdog, refused to lower the movie’s R-rating to a PG-13. The unrated version of the movie -- which included uses of both the “f” and "mf” words -- was released in New York and Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago.

Last week the ratings' game changed. Weinstein and the MPAA reached an agreement under which Bully received its PG-13 rating. The Los Angeles Times reported that the "mf" word had been dropped along with a couple (though not all) of the “f” bombs.

The fight, of course, revolved around who could or could not see Bully, a deeply disturbing documentary about the horrible effects of bullying on kids who often find themselves defenseless in school environments. We’re talking about kids for whom riding the school bus can present a daily gauntlet of torture.

The profanity in Bully is so far from the most unsettling thing about this powerful documentary that one is tempted to question the MPAA’s sanity, as well as its reflexive attempts to protect audiences that sometimes seem more disturbed by foul language than by wanton violence. (I’m sure the MPAA would prefer the word “guidance” to “protection,” but I leave it to them to write their own review.)

With its newly awarded PG-13 rating, director Lee Hirsch’s movie now may be seen by teen-agers who may be moved enough to stand up against bullying when they view it -- or so the hope goes.

If Bully has it right, it’ s more likely that such kids will come to the aid of those who are victimized than will adults. Hirsch doesn’t find many examples of exemplary adult behavior in the Iowa, Georgia and Oklahoma school systems he visits.

One of the administrators we meet in the film is exasperated by bullying, but seems hopelessly naive about how kids operate when left to their own devices.

The heart of the film belongs to the kids who are bullied. Fourteen-year-old Alex suffers at the hands of bullies, and is reluctant to talk about it with his parents. Ja’Meya Jackson, 14, faces 45 felony counts after drawing a gun on a school bus to stop her tormenters. And that's just a sampling of the pain that makes Bully so unsettling.

Some of these kids have real spunk. Kelly Johnson, an Oklahoma high school student and unafraid lesbian, believes that her openness can change attitudes in her small town. She’s heartbreakingly wrong.

Bully provides a good staring point to look at a problem that’s not easily addressed, partly because of prevailing notions that kids must learn to stand up for themselves. Bully doesn’t really look at the many programs that have been developed to try to deal with bullying. And I would have liked to learn something about kids who do all this bullying.

Still, there’s nothing wrong with a reminder that when kids terrorize other kids, the last thing that adults should do is look the other way or chalk it up to the shopworn idea that ... well ... kids will be kids.

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