Bullied kids can now see a movie about bullied kids. Bully, Lee Hirsch’s documentary detailing the torment that children heap on their classmates, had been rated R, which theoretically forbids those under 17 to see it without a parent or adult guardian. At issue were six uses of the F word, three of them hurled in one barrage against a 12-year-old. The Weinstein Company, which is releasing the film, agreed to remove the other three Fs if it could keep the words in the scene it considered essential. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the industry lobbying group in charge of movie ratings, yesterday agreed to the cuts, and the movie, which opened in an unrated version last week, will play in theaters permitting children to see it unaccompanied. The new rating should also encourage educators to show the film in schools.
The compromise allows both sides to claim victory. “There are three ‘f—s” removed,” TWC co-chair Harvey Weinstein wrote in an email to TIME. “They were almost inaudible. The three ‘f—s’ in the bullying scene are intact, not cut. That was the battle and the MPAA gave in.” Joan Graves, head of the rating board, also sounded pleased. “The ratings system has worked exactly as it is supposed to,” she said in a statement, meaning that Bully went from a R to a PG-13 because Weinstein had submitted a slightly different version for review. The MPAA did waive a stipulation that 90 days must pass between the showing of the same film with different ratings.
Weinstein and his co-chair brother Bob have fought these battles for more than two decades, dating back to the 1980s when they ran Miramax Films. In 1989 the MPAA slapped the old X rating on one Miramax release, Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover; the following year, having rebranded the toxic X to NC-17 (No Children Under 17), the group applied that rating to Pedro Almodóvar’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! In the mid-’90s Larry Clark’s grimy teen-AIDS drama Kids pulled an NC-17, while Kevin Smith’s debut feature Clerks. won an R rating on appeal. Just last year, after their R-rated The King’s Speech won four important Oscars, including Best Picture, the Weinsteins submitted a new version removing the dozen or so Fs from one scene, and won a PG-13 rating. But the movie was played out by then: it earned $135.5 million with an R, just $3.3 million in the milder version.
That rating didn’t matter; this one does. Bullying is an American health crisis, and the kids who perpetrate it need to see the rancid fruits of their abuse as much as the kids who endure it. With an R rating, children would need a parent’s explicit consent or personal appearance. “How many 15- and 14-year-olds want to see it with their parents?” Katy Butler, the Ann Arbor, Mich., teen whose petition in favor of a PG-13 for Bully has attracted 523,000 signatures, told the MPAA’s Chris Dodd at a March 15 meeting in Washington, D.C. “That’s just not cool.”
(READ: What If My Son Is a Bully?)
Last week TWC released Bully as unrated, leaving to theater owners the decision on whether to admit unaccompanied kids. One chain, AMC, agreed to allow children in if they had a note from their parents; other exhibitors treated Bully as an NC-17, forbidding kids to see it, with or without an adult guardian. That was a lose-lose situation, and with the movie earning just a middling $154,000 in its first week at six theaters, the Weinsteins returned to the MPAA with their minutely edited version. On earlier appeal, the MPAA board had agreed to overturn the R rating but fell short of the two-thirds mandate by one vote. “They wanted to give us a win,” Harvey Weinstein said in his email, “but also wanted face-saving.”
In the end, a few prominent faces in Hollywood and Manhattan were saved. More important, countless young lives and wounded psyches may be salvaged, if kids will only see this film about their real worst nightmares.