New Doc Beat Up Viewers

Just as the contrived “Kids Killing Kids” hype for The Hunger Games was getting started, a new “Kids Killing Kids” documentary asserts its claim on public attention: Bully, directed by Lee Hirsch, could be one of the challenges in The Hunger Games. It makes a show of how school kids torment each other, using real-life circumstances where victimization goes unheeded. Hirsch starts with two suicides (Tyler, 16, Ty, 11), another boy’s daily misery (Alex, 12), a taunted teenage lesbian (Kelby, 16), then the incarceration of a girl (Ja‘Meya, 14) who threatened her oppressors.

These terrible incidents are meant to represent an epidemic of hatefulness–Hillary Swank could play each of these kids–but Hirsch showcases too many instead of simply concentrating on one story to reveal the basic cultural breakdown when “kids killing kids” becomes an everyday social occurrence and not just a tag line to promote a blockbuster.

It’s the blockbuster-doc mentality that undercuts Bully. Hirsch’s do-gooder impulse recalls Waiting for ’Superman’, where the filmmaker’s sanctimony confuses special pleading with the work of journalistic investigation. An additional problem arises from the film’s test-group subjects: its red state/blue state prejudice implies that bullying only occurs in the South or Midwest.

Hirsch exploits these kids and their communities–though with the best intentions. But Bully’s feel-good-about-feeling-bad approach is offensive because it’s also the “That’s-not-me” approach, allowing viewers to think they would react differently or more effectively than the helpless parents, clueless school officials and young, terrified All-American prey. Hirsch goes for sorrow when there is no sorrow in our Hunger Games culture, just an atmosphere of relentless competition–despite our inflammatory media’s pious lip service to anti-bullying. This cultural disaster is exacerbated by social media–the open platform for incivility mistakenly celebrated as democratized, technological progress.

As a documentary, Bully fails to examine the warped adolescent habits that pornographer Larry Clark enjoyed in the 2001 Brad Renfro movie Bully. Clark’s prurience is a tonic compared to Hirsch’s approach. He never interviews a bully, refuses to detail the psychology of social behavior. He seems uninterested in how bullies learn their malice or how our institutions promote antagonism through the culture of winning. There’s no insight into cliques and conformity, just sob stories–and some are difficult to shake off: fragile Ja’Meya‘s homecoming ecstasy and Alex’s awkward age romanticism (“Girls are like candy, sometimes you want a Hershey’s bar, sometimes you want a Snickers bar. You can’t tell which one you want”) that confirms he’s like every kid.

When a documentarian undermines his own subject, blame the Michael Moore syndrome that has distorted the parameters of non-fiction filmmaking. Hirsch compounds his crusading arrogance with the fuzzy principles of cinema verite. While filming scenes of Alex’s school bus brutalization, or an assistant principal’s feckless attempts at crowd management, Hirsch bears witness to cruelty without stepping in. It may make for alarming footage but it also fails an adult’s responsibility. The hands-off approach only works when Hirsch captures tension between Alex’s judgmental father and weeping mother (she cries, “Next time Alex is around I’ll punch you hard, so he can see you cry.”)

The MPAA is right to recommend restricted viewing for such scenes as a boy threatening “I will end you! I’m bringing a knife tomorrow, I’m gonna fuck you up!” It is self-righteous for filmmakers to ignore that such voyeuristic scenes glorify menacing bravado, especially in a film and video culture dedicated to crime and violence. Arguing for a non-restricted rating once again ignores the need for responsible film-viewing. MTV’s Bully Beatdown offered a better remedy, so does the porn satire It Gets Bigger whose mockery of the sanctimonious “It Gets Better” campaign naughtily implies that no amount of Liberal sloganeering will resolve unchecked animal instinct. The problem of p.c. sanctimony only gets bigger.

Bully’s promoters seem ignorant of the fact that kids don‘t want to see docs like this anyway. They already know what bullying is and most movies congratulate them for it.


Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair