I’m not a movie reviewer, but I strongly recommend that you take your child by the hand this weekend — or several children — to see the new documentary film, Bully. The only problem is, you might not be able to find the film at your neighborhood cineplex. That’s because the Motion Picture Association of America has stamped the film “Unrated,” after a long and noisy battle over its original R-rating. So now it is up to the individual theatre owners to decide whether or not they will exhibit Bully. I urge them to do so.
But make no mistake, even if you have to drive your kids across state lines to see the film, your kids need to be in the audience — because, whether you know it or not, they may be among the 13 million American children affected by bullying every year. For them, this is more than just a movie. It is real life.
And in this real life, parents have been all but invisible — invisible in the school cafeteria, invisible on the playground, invisible on the school bus and online — unwittingly abandoning their children to face this torment alone. The film makes this painfully clear, whether it’s the dad who confidently recites that timeworn rationalization about bullying — “Kids will be kids” — or the school administrator who blindly insists to a worried parent that her students are “good as gold on that school bus” — intercut with a clip of a small boy being choked on that very bus. We come away from Bully feeling defeated and enraged.
Interestingly, the MPAA’s controversial decision about the film’s rating — based on its use of profanity and other violent language — could end up working in the children’s favor. Research indicates that bullied kids are not comfortable revealing their dangerous predicaments to their parents. But now that the rating has forced kids to see the film with an adult, the movie can do the revealing for them. And children will at last feel their parents there, by their side, seeing and understanding what it’s like to leave their house and wander unprotected into a scary world.
Adults may be horrified by what they see in Bully, but the kids know this world all too well. Directed by Lee Hirsch, the film captures the wrenching drama of schoolyard bullying — the hitting and harassing, the tormenting and tears, the grave suffering — in unflinching detail, as it zooms in on the daily battles waged by five bullied children, two of whom ultimately commit suicide. But sitting through the film will be worth every harrowing minute, especially to the children, whose only hope against this ever deepening crisis is the visible and vocal support of the adults in their lives.
The MPAA’s decision has incited a storm of protest. When Bully was first given an R-rating, a 17-year-old Michigan high-schooler, Katy Butler — who has been bullied herself — posted a petition on Change.org, demanding that the MPAA change the rating. When such high-profile and conscientious activists as Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp joined in the protest, the MPAA was effectively arm-twisted into changing the movie’s rating to a still restrictive “Unrated.”
But while all of this debate continues, the sad fact is: children are still dying at the hands of bullying.
This is why I am urging all adults — parents, guardians, caregivers — to take your kids to see Bully this weekend. I also encourage educators and school administrators to arrange school-wide field trips. Because if there’s one thing we’ve learned since launching our anti-bullying campaign last year — with the Ad Council, the Department of Education and funders like AOL, Facebook, the Waitt Family Foundation and the Free To Be Foundation (who have been major funders of the Bully Project) — it’s that, if we are ever to eradicate this deadly, modern-day scourge, we need to face the problem head-on — and together.