Few documentaries have been thrust into the national spotlight quite like "Bully" has -- and for good reason.
In the spring of last year, when director Lee Hirsch's film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, critics and festivalgoers immediately took notice, resulting in the Weinstein Company's swooping in to pick it up for distribution. No small feat. Everything was going smoothly leading up to this Friday's release -- until the film was slapped with an R rating by the MPAA. The surprise move by the ratings board made headlines, and angered Harvey Weinstein to no end.
He has good reason to be mad, and not just because the movie's R rating will hinder the film's box-office potential.
"Bully," a documentary that sheds some much needed light on the bullying epidemic in America, is the sort of film that demands to be seen by the generation it depicts. How can we as a nation address this potentially deadly issue, if the children who witness and undergo bullying aren't able to watch a film that could help put a stop to it?
Hirsch opens "Bully" by recounting the 2009 suicide of Tyler Long, a teen who took his own life after years of being bullied. Using that horrifying incident as a springboard, Hirsch opens up his documentary to follow a handful of bullied children across the country, to address what is evidently a country-wide problem.
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Among the subjects Hirsch profiles: 16-year-old lesbian Kelby, who doesn't shy away from attending her Oklahoma school despite many of the students being homophobic; 14-year-old Ja'meya, a girl facing jail time for threatening her verbally abusive classmates with a gun; and 14-year-old Alex, a bespectacled boy who's constantly harassed by other students (he gets death threats on the school bus) while teachers either ignore his plight or choose not to intervene.
The amazing access Hirsch gets into the lives of these tormented kids makes "Bully" a tough sit. Watching these defenseless children put up with ongoing abuse that goes mostly ignored is infuriating and, most of all, deeply unsettling.
But more than anything, "Bully" is a powerful call to action, made clear when Hirsch eventually turns his footage over to Alex's school with the hope of helping to improve the kid's dire situation.
In the wake of the MPAA's R-rating slap, Weinstein has decided to release "Bully" unrated, with AMC Theaters allowing those under 17 to see the film with a permission slip. Despite the support of AMC and various celebrities, the unfortunate result of the MPAA's decision is that the film doesn't stand much chance of being viewed in schools, the place where a film like "Bully" matters most.
Here's hoping that won't deter parents from seeking it out with their kids. It's a wake-up call that needs to be seen.