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A heartbreaker; 'Bully' is a call to action that needs to be answered

Lee Hirsch's "Bully" wastes no time breaking your heart.

But then why on earth should it? You can call it a documentary if you like. And wonder if it should shame the audience so shamelessly.

But this isn't a documentary as much as it is a heart-stricken call to action. The higher propaganda, if you will.

It's the nonfiction version of a pamphlet, an invocation to the afflicted to endure, to the indifferent to sensitize and to the sympathetic to organize (and be of service to those who already are).

You can, if you choose, view it simply as the powerful, if hectoring, study of a handful of middle schoolers having such a hard time of it from schoolmates that their lives were put on the brink.

Our hearts are broken before we even see the opening credits.

Hirsch shows us the father of 17-year-old Tyler Long. We see home movies of Tyler as an adorable baby, giggling as his father nuzzles his belly.

And then we learn his fate. The teen terrorism, for instance, he couldn't evade or avoid. Kids at school shoved him into lockers. And told him he was worthless. It never let up.

He hanged himself in a closet when he was 17.

Before the movie is over, it opens that closet door to show us the shelf that has been put in place so that no one will have to look at that terrible empty space. Tyler's parents and little brothers and sisters, after all, are still with us and living in the same house.

Life does go on.

After the news about Tyler has set the stage, we get the film credits. And a few minutes later the unsurprising but noble news that the teen's distraught parents refuse to be vanquished by grief. They are prime movers in what we've seen become a national movement against school bullying.

We saw, with local horror and sorrow, one result of it when 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer killed himself not long after making a video reassuring gay teens that "it gets better."

Jamey's brain was so much wiser than his heart. Almost all teenage problems -- and it is, for so many, the nadir of life by far -- can be cured by simply growing up.

The kids we see in "Bully" are on the way -- except for Tyler. And, we see later, the family of another teen suicide.

The ones we follow are:

*Alex, a 12-year-old from Sioux City, Iowa, was born prematurely and is now called "fish face" at school by kids who find him "creepy." They torment him on the school bus -- hit him, stab him, push him around. He says almost nothing.

It is so bad that the film -- which is the do-good result of "The Bully Project" -- flashes a title card telling us that the producers finally showed the kid's school administration and parents footage of what was happening to Alex.
*Je'Meya, a 14-year-old in Mississippi, whose mother brags about her tennis trophies. She was bullied so badly on the school bus that one day, she brought a gun with her, and, at one point, faced 45 felony counts, including kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon. She spends most of the film's length locked up in juvenile detention.

*Kelby, a 16-year-old in Oklahoma whose coming out as a lesbian makes middle school life undurable (at one point, she is deliberately hit by a car) and whose life, when she gets to high school, is so bad her parents finally have to remove her.

These are the kids no one wants to turn into Tyler or Jamey, but who are beset by other kids who now have hideous new weapons for cruelty (beginning with the Internet) and adults who refuse to see it as anything other than the "normal" cruelties of childhood.

We watch these kids from our adult vantage point and make what we think of as educated guesses about each when they get older and things do "get better."

Kelby's life won't be easy but she looks like a tough kid to me, with major inner resources. So, in his way, is Alex, who is on a continuous strength curve that you might suspect is lifelong. Je'Meya is more mysterious in the way that kids are who fight back.

Which leads to the biggest narrative hole in "Bully." And it's a very big one indeed.

What about the bullies themselves -- those who make life a living hell for others? Who are they? What's going on with them?

As we see Alex tormented daily on the school bus, one older, overweight red-haired boy seems to be his chief tormentor. We learn nothing about him. We can see from his face that he seems an even more unhappy kid than his victim, who takes his continual beatings and says nothing.

Do we even have the courage to guess what happens to him?

Remember that Erik Smith, who sodomized and murdered a 4-year-old at the age of 13, has said that he thinks he did it because he was bullied himself.

A word about my star rating of "Bully": It gets three stars considered only as a film.

Considered as a necessary cinematic text in a much-overdue social movement, it's four stars all the way.




3 stars (out of 4)

Much-acclaimed and fought-over documentary by Lee Hirsch following the terrible consequences of bullied middle school students.

94 minutes. Rated PG-13 for language.