Chicago International Film Festival 2011
The Bully Project Directed by: Lee Hirsch Cast: Documentary Running Time: 1 hr 30 mins Rating: R Release Date: March 9, 2012
PLOT: A documentary that tells the stories of American youth who are bullied in their middle schools.
WHO'S IT FOR? With a refusal to bleep out its “R”-rated language, The Bully Project isn’t made for kids, so much as their parents, who apparently must not have their own experiences in bullying. Its main focus is to share horror stories (which are sadly true) about the damage that bullying does not to children, but their parents as well. Parents who seem to not have any answers or solutions about how to handle such a devastating ordeal.
For a “character-driven drama,” The Bully Project is full of too many weakly developed subjects to squeeze much out of its audience other than related sympathy. We watch in anger the episodes of relentless bullying in Alex’s life, but showing a conclusion or a solution to his problems seems out of the question for the filmmakers. In not providing us this satisfaction, The Bully Project fails to provide the simplest of important wisdom it could provide the younger viewers of the film (who, ironically, couldn’t even get into a theater to watch this). That wisdom is this: “High school/middle school is not the end of the world.”
Though it features many adults, no one says anything like this. I imagine if the filmmakers had even asked, they would have shared their own stories of the darker moments of adolescence, all of them which would provide hope, and would enhance the courageous aspect of the film.
The Bully Project is not a project. Such a title suggests examination, or experimentation. This documentary does neither, as it sticks to its message of, “Bullying is bad, okay?” instead of going deep into such an immortal horror. With such access to the school and an appetite to eat up any kid’s story of being bullied, why not talk with an actual bully?
Idiotically, The Bully Project empowers bullies. It leaves them feeling omnipotent and intimidating to the audience, just as we feel about them after they invade our space, shove our heads in toilets, etc. The people who pound on Alex, or those who pick on Kelby, or those who drove Tyler to suicide, are hardly explored. The nature of conformity, which seems to be a heavy component to conformity, is left by the wayside. Such components seem to be of little interest to a documentary more focused on giving its swirlies of tears than thoughtful conclusions about what can be done to save kids like Alex who don’t deserve the sh*t put on them.
Instead, bullies lurk in the forgotten territories of this documentary, bounding in our minds like savage beasts with no remorse concerning the domestic destruction they cause. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see someone who drove a boy like Tyler to suicide try to explain themselves, or even apologize on camera? Is this not the type of arena where the villains should be explored, just as much as their victims? I bet that’d make for a good documentary.
While this might sound like a bullyish thing to say, the film does feel like it’s basically the Weinstein Company trying to cash in on the potential hipness of “anti-bullying” campaigns. Lady Gaga takes up any cause of bullying she can fight, and Dan Savage has created a hopeful campaign that tells us what this movie forgets to: “It gets better.” And unfortunately, this movie doesn’t.
Outside of promoting a parents’ “Stand for the Silent” cause, The Bully Project offers no such answers or solutions itself. It leaves everyone scrambling, with more anxieties about the topic weighing them down possibly than before.
The Bully Project is a disappointing documentary that doesn’t break any new ground, and doesn’t dare to explore the villains that can make our lives so dramatic.
FINAL SCORE: 3/10