Bully (PG-13) (99 min.) — The recent controversy about the MPAA's initial R rating for Lee Hirsch's documentary loses steam when you see the movie. Bullying in schools is certainly an important topic deserving closer examination than this. Bully is no more incisive than a Dateline NBC segment on the subject, although with a PG-13 rating it now can be a classroom tool for discussion.
Hirsch focuses upon a handful of adolescent victims of bullying, especially Alex, 12, whose premature birth left him awkward in appearance and mannerism. Classmates call him Fishface, and even Alex's younger sister deems him "creepy." Cameras catch Alex absorbing physical and emotional abuse on the school bus, in hallways. Like many victims he doesn't tell his parents, who should guess it's happening and do something about it.
What is unsettling about Alex is that he seems grateful for the attention, no matter how rough or insulting. Alex gets punched and rather than walking away he follows the attacker like a puppy, waiting for the next notice. The personality trait isn't addressed; you wonder why Alex doesn't resist more, or if he isn't capable why others don't do it for him. (Nor is there any analysis of the kids pushing him around.)
There's also Kelby, 16, a lesbian in a Bible Belt community shunning her and her accepting family. Hirsch doesn't pay as much attention to Kelby since she's far more resilient than Alex, finding a group of misfit friends to hang around. But she underlines the cause of being bullied they share: ineffectual school authorities claiming to have the problem under control.
Two kids take matters into their own hands, with tragic results. Ja'maya, 12, carried her mother's pistol on a school bus, to scare her tormentors. She's facing a long prison sentence that the local sheriff sounds eager to press. Tyler, 17, hanged himself in his closet, leading his parents into activism in his memory. Hirsch's film should offer earlier glimpses of its final scenes, at an antibullying rally revealing both the toll and the hope.
Bully was originally rated R for profanity including several f-words. Three were excised to earn the more lenient PG-13. But the fact that a few bad words would cause the MPAA to shut out teenagers who should see Bully was a monumental gaffe, when violence and sexuality regularly get a PG-13. The Weinstein Co. passionately milked and won its appeal, making Bully seem much more provocative than it is. B (Showing at Regency 20 in Brandon, Veterans 24 in Tampa and Park Place 20 in Pinellas Park.)
Steve Persall, Times movie critic