Review: Bully

(M) ***

Director: Lee Hirsch.

MESSAGE documentaries are difficult to review.

For instance, Bully is a three-star documentary with a five-star message, but it's hard to disparage the shortcomings of the filmmaking when there's so much passion, emotion, and great intentions coursing through its disjointed scenes and at-times frustrating delivery.

The film focuses several kids and families affected by bullies. There is the socially awkward Alex, small-town lesbian Kelby, the families of suicide victims Ty Smalley and Tyler Long, and the tale of Ja'Meya, who was pushed so far she resorted to taking a gun with her to the school bus to scare off her attackers.

Along the way we see the laughable efforts made by teachers; the black-and-white views of the police; the mixed messages sent by parents; and the heartfelt campaigning of those left behind by bullying-related suicides.

It's a worthy subject and one deserving of attention. You will definitely be affected by this documentary and moved to tears at least once.

So why only three stars? Sadly, Bully feels like a missed opportunity.

All the tales are interesting in some way but two are noticeably undynamic and lacking, diminishing the potency of the message. Kelby's segments show her telling her story, hanging with her friends, vowing to never leave her Oklahoma hometown, then leaving her hometown, with no indication as to the breaking point and with no input to the tale from outside sources that would have given it a bigger scope. Ja'Meya is held in custody, released into psychiatric care, then allowed to go home, with no insight provided into her plight, true motivations, "treatment", the overall effect of the whole saga, her reflections on it, her hopes for the future, or her thoughts on it all.

I don't wish to undermine the plights of these two poor bullied girls -- as both have obviously been through a lot and have interesting tales to tell -- but in the film's use of editing, footage selection and pacing their stories aren't demonstrated effectively enough to make them worthy of inclusion, which is disappointing.

These are the moments when Bully slows down and loses its grip on your emotions. It's a tough watch at times but it feels like it should have been even tougher.

More intriguing is the story of Alex. There is some terrifyingly powerful footage in this - the torment of young Alex on his daily schoolbus ride is deeply disturbing - but that just brings up another unnerving issue. How could the documentarians have not intervened while it was going on? (Note: they did eventually, but only after they had their footage).

The acquisition of the footage, when you think about it, leaves an unsettling feeling. Was the presence of the cameras helpful or exploitative?

Some of the hardest-hitting moments come from the Smalley and Long families. Bully opens with the Longs, who are still coming to terms with the loss of their 17-year-old son, Tyler. We see them begin their journey for answers and their push to campaign against bullying.

Part way through the production, the film crew heard of the suicide of Ty Smalley and attended his funeral. The Smalley family's story also begins a campaign that dovetails in with the Longs, giving the doco a flow, a direction and a more satisfying arc. Most importantly, it helps give the film its biggest and most powerful punch in terms of delivering its message.

Documentaries are often only as good as the footage they obtain. Maybe that was the limitation here. Already it was walking a fine line between awareness and exploitation. Making Bully must have been a tough job, which is why it feels slightly unfair to be honest about its shortcomings.

What matters most is the message, and it is a good one. Bully offers no answers beyond that of awareness but that is perhaps the best option with this complex issue.

My biggest fear is that it will be preaching to the converted. This should be compulsory viewing in schools. Kids guilty of bullying should be made to watch it and write reports on it to ensure they comprehend. Maybe then its message will be as effective as it deserves to be.

Bully is not perfect, but everyone should see it.

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