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Boys will be boys. They can be so mean at that age. What can anyone do about it?

Bully — and its producers and subjects — suggest that something ought to be done.

Alex seeks solace by the train tracks
Alex seeks solace by the train tracks

Half a dozen kids are profiled in this documentary from Lee Hirsch. The strongest thread features Alex from Sioux City, Iowa; he has an appearance and demeanor that seem to invite bullying. Kelby is a gay girl in a small, insular town in Oklahoma. Tyler committed suicide at 17 and his parents go on camera. Ty (a different boy) also committed suicide, leaving his parents bewildered; they start a movement to end bullying. Ja’Meya was sent to juvie after she took her mother’s gun with her on the school bus to scare the mean girls who constantly picked on her.

The strongest footage is apparently captured by an invisible photographer. Kids do the darnedest things. They make death threats, they push and shove, they strangle, they insult and demean. The footage is remarkable because that sort of behavior would stop immediately were any adult to show up. Somehow the filmmakers were able to capture this human subculture without making the Heisenbergian mistake of changing the outcome by observing it.

Granted, the footage chosen for a film called “Bully” is likely the worst of the worst, and not representative of a typical moment in a child’s life. But it’s amazing to think that there is a part of humanity where this sort of behavior is the norm. I remember it being so from my own childhood, but I never see it anymore — children always behave differently when adults are around. Yet here we see kids being kids in ways that other human beings do not treat each other.

Almost as baffling is the cluelessness of the adults, like the administrator who says “I’ve ridden that bus. The kids are as good as gold.” Little did she know that her statements would be intercut with shocking footage of cruelty on that very bus. Even the parents and better-attuned administrators don’t seem to realize how they come across to the children through whose eyes we have come to see the world. The adults have completely unrealistic standards to which they hold their children. They ask leading questions that demand insincere answers. Yet in spite of that incredible authoritarian pressure, sometimes Alex or another child manages an honest answer that isn’t what the authority figure wants to hear.

There are times when Bully makes me feel hopeless about the future of humanity. The disconnect between the adult world and the child world is a wide gulf.

There is also a gulf between urban and rural America. To his credit, the father of the gay teen in rural Oklahoma did not retract his love or support when she came out. Yet, as she tells it, the entire school retreated, emotionally and physically. That can’t be entirely true as we never see Kelby without her girlfriend and at least two other friends. But even the father speaks of how cold the town has become to him and his family “to the point that people won’t even wave at you anymore.” He nobly offers to let the family move somewhere... “bigger” is the word his daughter recalls, and it takes on a double meaning. But she says if she doesn’t stay and fight it, the next kid will have to fight it all alone.

A better film might have sought out some of the perpetrators of this bigotry, rather than letting the accusations from the victims do all of the talking. But I don’t doubt that life became much more difficult for a gay teen in a place that is “small.”

Bully is all over the news because of its R rating (since reduced to PG-13). Because of its omnipresence in the news, I had expected something stronger, more powerful. The movie does have some very strong scenes, and it’s very provocative. I’m not sure if it’s a great example of documentary filmmaking, but it’s sure to start some conversations.