Go see – and feel – ‘Bully’ opening in Atlanta

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Most of the attention on the documentary “Bully” has been on its ridiculous former R rating and the producers’ fight for a PG-13. But what deserves the attention is the film itself, opening in Atlanta on Friday.

The R rating restricted the film’s anti-bullying message from a key target audience: adolescents and teens. During the ratings row, Atlanta was going to get the movie unrated. But now “Bully” goes into wider release Friday with a follow-up PG-13 re-rating from the MPAA, which is certainly more appropriate. Said “R” was for coarse language, nothing any adolescent hasn’t heard repeatedly.

Lee Hirsch’s film follows five families throughout the course of a school year, all of whom have or had kids dealing with the stings – emotional and physical – of bullying. Two of those families lost children to suicide. From Murray County, Ga., are the Longs, whose 17-year-old son Tyler hung himself after repeated bullying from fellow students, including calling him a “fag.” The Smalleys, from Perkins, Okla., also have a child – Ty, 11 – take his own life.

Also featured are Kelby, a 16-year old girl who comes out as a lesbian in her Oklahoma town, and Ja’Meya, a 14-year-old from Mississippi who takes a gun on the bus with her after harassment from other kids. The other major figure is Alex, 12, from Sioux City. At a young age, he seems to know he is an outsider and keeps to himself, although the other kids are brutal to him.

It’s harrowing material, and the individual stories are heart-breaking. After Kelby comes out as gay, she and her family feel the consequences. When she goes to class, the other students won’t sit next to her, and friends of the family won’t even wave to them. Ja’Meya is in a juvenile detention center, and local authorities aren’t very sympathetic to what has happened to her. Alex seems to take his bullying in stride – both at school and on the bus – and his parents are shocked when some of his bullying is recorded and shown to him.

The families of Ty and Tyler are left to try and figure out what happened and make change. Ty’s family starts an anti-bullying organization. In a powerful scene, the Longs host a community meeting, but representatives from the school system roundly ignore the event.

Hirsch introduces us to others in each family’s neighborhood and school system, and it’s eerie how similar the themes are. Some of the school officials seem oblivious to the problem, feeling it’s an issue for the kids being bullied to “man up” or that it’s something they can’t control.

Hirsch offers no solutions or much in the way of opposing views in the film, but what he gets dead right are the personal stories. His camera is exactly where it needs to be. It’s impossible not to watch this film and be unmoved – and feel a little anger at situations that keep repeating themselves.

“Bully” producers the Weinsteins are often criticized for their relentless “win an Oscar at any cost” mentality, but full credit must be given to them for releasing this film and standing up and demanding it be seen by as many people as possible. Some 13 million children suffer through bullying each year. This film needs to be seen and discussed. And felt.

“Bully” opens Friday in metro Atlanta theaters.

imageJim Farmer is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and public relations professional specializing in film promotions. He has been a theater and pop-culture critic for more than a dozen years and is the director of Atlanta’s annual Out On Film LGBT film festival.

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