Title notwithstanding, Bully is a documentary with a limited purview. It isn't trying to examine the psychology of the bully. It isn't relaying reams of statistics or providing a big-picture survey. It doesn't have any avoidance strategies to share with those being tormented. It wants only to give voice to a handful who have been bullied – to put a face on the kid who is mercilessly kicked around (or just plain kicked) by his or her peers – and in that precise ambition, Bully is devastatingly effective.
Filmed in pockets of Middle America – Iowa, Oklahoma, Georgia – during the 2009-10 school year, Bully follows three children struggling at school: Alex, a sweet, gawky middle-schooler dubbed "Fish Face" by his classmates; Kelby, a 16-year-old harassed by peers and teachers alike for having come out as a lesbian; and Ja'Meya, a slip of a girl so brutalized by the school-bus commute that one day she brandished a loaded gun and landed in juvenile detention. Filmmaker Lee Hirsch (Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony), working with equipment and crew unobtrusive enough to blend into the landscape, captures stinging moments on film that illustrate the ineffectualness of the adult authority figures tasked with protecting the bullied. The teachers and administrators don't seem to be making a dent in bullies' behavior, while the parents profiled are sympathetic but stumped for a solution. To wit: Alex's mom tries to explain to her son that the children flicking pencils at his head and calling him names aren't his friends. "If they aren't my friends," Alex asks, "who is?"
Your heart hurts for these kids, and the blood boils, too, at irrefutable evidence that these children are not safe in their schools. Bully is never easy to watch, but it becomes flat-out brutalizing when it turns the camera on two sets of shell-shocked parents trying to make sense of their children's bullying-related suicides. Hirsch has stated he means for his film to serve as a teaching tool in schools, and its depiction alone of the parents' bottomless grief is a gutting instruction.