The purpose of Lee Hirsch's documentary Bully is to expose bullying among children and teens, and to call out the mostly ineffectual responses it engenders.
Hirsch spent the 2009-10 school year documenting several bullied young people, including a lesbian in Oklahoma, who vows to stay in school to "take a stand," and a Mississippi girl who makes an ill-advised attempt to fight back. He also recounts the suicides of two bullied boys. Some of the stories might have been stronger with more information or context; not to deny the bullying occurred, but to recognize that teens do face myriad conflicts and influences.
Thus, the film is most illuminating when it depicts the daily life of Alex, a 12-year-old from Sioux City, Iowa, and shows the breadth of his family and school life. He's warm and funny at home, but struggles to make friends with classmates. Hirsch's camera captures the steady drip of "minor" abuse Alex receives (taunts, shoving, threats), as well as a disturbing physical assault. We also see the tepid responses he gets from school authorities, even when his parents present evidence. Alex's trials are painful to witness, but perhaps not as heartbreaking as watching him internalize the abuse as normal.
Cruelty is part of human nature, and thus, we rely on institutions and accepted codes of conduct to temper it. Bully doesn't delve into the "why" of bullying — or even establish an increase in bullying — but the armchair sociologist is free to speculate on what aspects of modern life might foster and excuse such behavior. (At first I was flummoxed when the bullying kids on Alex's school bus were not dissuaded by the live camera; then I remembered how bad behavior caught on tape is acceptable entertainment.)
One kid — who at 11 serves as pallbearer when his schoolmate commits suicide — opines: "If I was king of America, I'd make it so there was no popularity. Everyone should be equal." But we also see how these kids live in a world where being popular or dominant is constantly reinforced as the ideal, whether it's Friday-night football, student-body elections or the pop-culture heroes that adorn their T-shirts.
Don't expect solutions: Bully is an advocacy film, intended to shine light, change minds and further discussion. (Hirsch won his widely publicized appeal with the MPAA ratings board, and Bully is now PG-13.) The film tries to end on a hopeful note, showing sparsely attended anti-bullying rallies. Those rallies can't hurt — nor can seeing this film or having kids watch it — but this can only be the tiniest step forward in combating the pervasive nature of bullying.