By Jade Earle

Photo Courtesy of True/False Film Fest

As the saying goes: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. But, what if those words were so mean – loser – so demeaning – faggot – that they penetrated through your system faster than a speeding bullet? Unfortunately, words like these and others are said to multiple kids who are bullied across the country every day.

Lee Hirsch’s poignant documentary, Bully, follows five of these victims and their families from Midwest cities in Iowa, Oklahoma and Mississippi. Each character shares their story and the daily war they face with bullies on the school bus and at school before the homeroom bell even rings.

Each individual story is tied together as one linear two-hour movie, but each is given an equal amount of time to unfold. They unravel with the help of the movie’s music. Singular guitar chords and violin strings are intertwined through the scenes to express many of the subjects’ personalities.

For example, one of the boys, Alex, is seen in the film as one of the many who are bullied and tortured every day just because they appear to be different. The audience feels empathetic about the abuse he endures but is left with hope.

Alex’s humor shines through in positive scenes as the music – a solitary violin string played in a quirky, out-of-order kind of way – reaffirms his resilience to remain lighthearted in spite of his mistreatment.

But the music is not lighthearted throughout the entire film. The realities of bullying are still present, and Hirsch does not shy away from the choking, poking and name-calling that Alex and the other four children succumb to on the playground and in the hallways.

Even as the camera follows Alex to the playground, the music shifts to a quiet pressure-inducing melody that foreshadows the isolation, punches and laughs that Alex goes through at recess. There is even a scene on the school bus that shows Alex being choked and hit by a kid sitting next to him. These scenes were the most impactful, as some members of the audience were left shifting uncomfortably in their seats.

Aside from these demonstrative scenes, the audience also hears from parents who had children that committed suicide because of bullying. In fact, the opening scene shows a parent talking about his son’s experience while home video footage of his child as a baby is woven into the interview.

This is what Hirsch does well. He pieces together simple, isolated scenes with emotional or chaotic ones.

In addition, Hirsch includes stories of children from various backgrounds in small towns, like a gay teen in Oklahoma and a black girl in Mississippi. He also points out in the film that the results of bullying do not only lead to suicide, but they can also mean children dropping out of school if they cannot get their bullies to stop.

Seeing and taking in many of the scenes leaves the audience to wonder what the school’s administration is doing. Fortunately, Hirsch did not leave those answers out of the film either, as scenes from town halls and meetings were included. In those scenes, principals and school administrators say they did not know what they could do or that they could not control the kids at their school.

The contrast of the visible evidence of torture and the administration’s naivety – or negligence, if you want to call it – of bullying can be uncomfortable and unnerving to watch.

But, Hirsch relays the message of hope through the film with evidence of anti-bullying groups and initiatives established to address kids, like Alex, who have little to no help. Lee Hirsch says he made the film to address bullying and how some adults, the media and the public undermine its effects. He wants kids who are hurting to relay their own story.

“If we could make a film that gives a voice to these kids,” he says. “That would be powerful.”

Vox Rating: VVVV

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