[Ed note: This article contains commentary on some major plot points from the movie Bully. Read at your own risk.]
A mother from Yonkers, N.Y. took five children to see Bully yesterday. A few seats back, two parents brought their “shy” teenage son. And on the other side of the theater, two friends, 13- and 12-years old, asked the older girls’ mother to bring them after first learning about the movie from Justin Bieber’s Twitter account.
They were just a few of the many children-adult pairs in attendance at an afternoon showing of the film at an AMC theater on New York’s West Side, many of whom raised their hands to be recognized during director Lee Hirsh’s post-movie Q&A. Among the rest of the audience? Educators, adults young and old, and, me, a writer from Entertainment Weekly, who came into the film knowing that I’d leave with tear streaks in my makeup. But I take comfort in knowing I wasn’t the only one who left in that state. In fact, the minority was likely those who didn’t sniffle and squirm through the film, a heart-wrenching examination of the country’s bullying problem that in the past few weeks has gotten as much — if not more — press for its battle with the Motion Picture Association of America over its rating as it has for its weighty premise.
If anything became evident during the initial minutes of the film, it was that the battle over the language used in the film — the reason the film was at one time served a much-protested “R” rating — was the least of the issues at hand. The first scene introduced the audience to David and Tina Long, parents of 17-year-old Georgia student Tyler Long, who took his own life in 2009 after years of abuse from peers. Personal video footage was shown of Tyler growing up, learning to ride a bike as his “Papa” looked on, and doing karate, as his parents recounted their heartbreaking story. Bully punched us in the gut.
As the Longs walked to the grave of their son, reading the too-close dates on his tombstone, the light from the movie screen illuminated those around and in front of me. Every person I could see had their hand covering their mouth. The woman next to me sniffled. By the time the movie got to the two moments of particular vulgarity I noted, I knew they mattered little. In fact, had I not taken notes, they would not have been in the forefront of my mind when I eventually filed out of the theater.
In one instance, a bully on the sidewalk released a string of insults in which he used the word “motherf—er” liberally. In another, which even I feel uncomfortable repeating in detail, a bully on the bus told one of the documentary’s subjects, 12-year-old Alex, who likes learning but can’t riding to school without being tormented, that he was going to kill him and sexually assault him with a broomstick. Shocking to the audience? Definitely. One need only look around to fellow patrons to see that. But above all? Enraging — and sad, says 11-year-old New York City student Anya, who came to the film with her mother and friend after first learning about it from Justin Bieber and as part of a research project on the epidemic.
“I think it was really good,” she says. “I cried during a lot of it — like when Alex was getting bullied. I cried a lot.”
The filmmakers did intervene at one point, noting in the film that they turned in video footage to Alex’s parents and the school after Alex was strangled on the bus. A small piece of justice came as a result. But of the many people hoping to make something come of tragedy, the reaction to bullying that hit me hardest came from a young boy, who was friend of Ty Smalley, an 11-year-old from Oklahoma who committed suicide. While giving the filmmakers a tour of the woods where they once hunted rabbits and played (but not their secret clubhouse, he said seriously, because “no one’s allowed to see that”), the boy declared innocently that he’d put an end to bullying and suffering if he was “ever King of the United States.”
Alas, there were no kings and queens in the audience. Just parents and teachers, who, in some ways, might be even better equipped to fight this particular battle. Elizabeth Arroyo, a mother of three from Yonkers, was certainly called to action — on behalf of her 13-year-old daughter, who has been beat up and threatened in school, and on behalf of the other children who might experience it after her.
“While I was in there, I thought that I wanted to call the mayor of Yonkers and see what he can do. When my daughter was in the 5th grade, she got beat up and it took two days for me to report it because the police took that long to come to the school to take a report,” she says, adding that her daughter’s current principal is “wonderful.” “If I can bring some awareness to the mayor and the law enforcement to get those kids who are bullying punished [in a timely manner], that would be helpful.”
Will you see Bully when it comes to your town, readers? And if you saw it, what was your experience like?