Alex Libby, a 12-year-old in Sioux City, Iowa, is a sweet, smart kid with a passing resemblance to a pre-teen David Letterman. For Mother’s Day he gave his mom Jackie a card promising special gifts (“This coupon is good for one breakfast in bed”). She wants to believe that if other boys got to know her son, “he’d probably be the most devoted friend they ever had.” But Alex knows better—knows worse. His classmates call him Fish Face, and that’s when they’re being nice. On the school bus, the boy in the next seat tells him, “I will f—in’ end you, and stuff a broomstick up your ass.” Another time, Alex tells a school official, “This high-schooler was stranglin’ me, but I think he was just messin’ around.” When Jackie warns him, “Your only connection with these kids is that they like to pound on you,” Alex replies, “If you say these people aren’t my friends, then what friends do I have?” A thought occurs to him: If you can’t beat ’em, join the beaters. “They push me so far that I want to become the bully. “
Alex is one of the engaging, endangered stars of Lee Hirsch’s Bully, a documentary as vivid as any horror film, as heartbreaking as any Oscar-worthy drama. Hirsch, who says he was a victim of bullying as a child, spent the 2009-10 school year tracking the cases of five abused kids, including two who had committed suicide. The focus is on the receivers of badgering, not on those who dish it out, But the scene with the boy who threatened Alex on the school bus makes you wonder: Did he know he was being filmed? And if so, why did he so rashly incriminate himself? And what sort of hurt does he lay on kids when he’s not being filmed?
(READ: John Cloud’s Can Bullying Be Stopped?)
Because the boys who hand out verbal punishment occasionally use the F word as a tool of intimidation, the Motion Picture Association of America slapped Bully with the proscriptive R rating. (On appeal, most of the MPAA board members agreed to overturn the original rating, but the motion failed because it fell one vote short of the two-thirds threshold.) Thus Bully will be denied to the very children it means to help, predators and prey alike. Imagine that a bully turns 17, finally sees the film and thinks, “Oh, I shouldn’t have done that when I was a kid. Why didn’t someone show me this movie then?”
A March 15 Washington screening hosted by MPAA boss and former Senator Chris Dodd was jammed with supporters of the film. Katy Butler, an Ann Arbor, Mich., teen whose petition on behalf of a milder, PG-13 rating for the film has attracted more than a half-million signatures, was there. “How many 15- and 14-year-olds want to see it with their parents?” Butler asked Dodd. “That’s just not cool.”
(READ: Bonnie Rochman’s Should Bully Be Rated R?)
Another testifier was David Long, whose 17-year-old son Tyler is featured in Bully. Shortly before hanging himself after a torrent of taunting, Tyler made a video in which he advised a friend, “If all the kids insult you, and all things like that, forget about them.” But Tyler couldn’t forget. As his father says in the film, “Kids would throw his books on the floor and say ‘Pick em up, bitch.'” At the Dodd meeting, David Long argued that “A picture’s worth a thousand words. Thousands, if not millions, of parents and children are crying for our help.”
The hubbub was heaven to Harvey Weinstein, whose Weinstein Company is distributing the film. A year ago, after his R-rated The King’s Speech won the Academy Award for Best Picture, Weinstein softened one scene with a dozen f’s and released this tidier version of the film with a PG-13 rating. The same word in Bully could have been bleeped, but it would have lost the scalding sting of its impact on a 12-year-old. Weinstein kept the movie intact and, with Bully now a cause for concerned parents and kids, decided this week to release it unrated, leaving to movie-theater owners the decision whether to admit children unaccompanied. One chain, AMC, has announced it would let kids see it if they are accompanied by an adult guardian (as is theoretically necessary for R-rated films) or if they bring a note from their parents. Nice try, but that makes the picture seem too much like homework. Meanwhile, comedies rife with penis jokes and ritual humiliation are rated PG-13. The internal contradictions of the MPAA’s classification system could make even a Mormon explode in a four-letter barrage.
The sad joke of this ruling is that the children depicted in Bully already live in an world rated R — for the physical or psychic violence they suffer, and for and the vicious language directed at them. In a society that tolerates or rewards hazing, gangsta rap and trash talk in sports and in political discourse, boys may think that parading their domination over others is a sign of maturity or machismo. (Girls can be brutal too, but in Bully most of the sadists are boys.) Middle school becomes a prison, the lifers are in charge, and a kid like Alex is their bitch. Should the family of a victimized child move him in another school? In many communities, there is none. To another city? Most parents can’t afford it; and to leave town would admit that the bullies have won.
(READ: Belinda Luscombe’s What If My Son Is a Bully?)
So Kelby Johnson, a 16-year-old lesbian in “Bible Belt Oklahoma,” has to endure locker signs saying “Faggots aren’t welcome here.” Kelby’s presumed pestilence also infects her family. Says her father Bob: “There are people we spent years with, side by side, coaching their children, that will not even wave to us anymore.” But Kelby is strong enough to stay put. It helps that she has found some outlaw buddies and a pint-size sweetheart. (“I got my four-foot-ten girlfriend to protect me,” Kelby says with a smile.) New friends may await the victimized in the bigger world — where the misfits might find a place to fit — if they can just survive high school.
Many children are suicides or homicides waiting to happen, yet the schools do little. “Kids will be kids, boys will be boys,” says Dean Donehoo, the Director of Administration for Murray County, Ga., schools, at a town hearing on the Tyler Long death. “They’re just cruel at that age.” Donehoo — and another school official who shrugs off violence by saying, “Buses are notoriously bad places for lots of kids” — must think bullying is a rite of passage, like the scarring of an Africa village boy. They’re wrong. This toxic practice must be called what it is: child molestation by other children.
“I don’t believe in luck,” Alex says, “but I believe in hope.” The film ends with a little hope: on the last day of class in Sioux City, a girl gets Alex to sign her T-shirt, and she signs his. In another town, David Long convenes parents of abused children to commemorate lost souls, agitate for school reform and wear T shirts that read “Tyler, you voice will be heard.”
The most effective remedy would be to show Bully in class, so it could provide a clear mirror of distorted values to young victimizers and their victims alike. First, though, these kids must be allowed to see it.