(2012) Documentary (Weinstein) Kirk Smalley, David Long, Tina Long, Alex Libby, Ja’Meya Jackson, Kelby Johnson, Bob Johnson, Phillip Libby, Maya Libby, Devon Matthews, Barbara Primer, Laura Smalley, Trey Wallace, Kim Lockwood, Londa Johnson, Teryn Long, Troy Long. Directed by Lee Hirsch
There is no doubt that bullying is an epidemic problem around the United States; it has replaced parental abuse as the most common source of violence most kids will experience.
This documentary looks into the effects of bullying on five different families. Alex Libby is a sweet natured 12-year-old kid who enters East Middle School in Sioux City, Iowa with a mixture of fear and resignation. He has difficulty making friends and is tormented with verbal and physical abuse from bullies who take delight in disparaging his looks, calling him rude names.
Kelby Johnson is a 16-year-old in Tuttle, Oklahoma who was a star athlete and whose parents were active in their local church. When Kelby comes out as a lesbian, she is ostracized, tormented and run over with a mini-van. Her parents find that their conservative Christian friends will no longer speak to them. Her dad offers to move to a larger city to escape the abuse but Kelby, showing great resolve, refuses. She has a support system of a loving family and loyal friends to back her up.
Ja’Meya Jackson has some of that as well but it’s difficult to get a lot of support in the juvenile lock-up facility in Yazoo County, Mississippi. The 14-year-old had been bullied so thoroughly and was so angry and afraid that she took her mother’s handgun on board the school bus in a misguided effort to get the bullies to stop.
David and Tina Long are loving parents. Their sons Teryn and Troy are pretty well adjusted but there is a great deal of sadness in their household. Their eldest son, Tyler Long committed suicide at the age of 17 years old, found by his father hanging in his closet after years of unrelenting bullying in their Murray County, Georgia community and little to no help from school officials after numerous complaints. The Longs are determined to make Tyler’s action count for something.
Kirk and Laura Smalley feel the same way. They have just buried their son Ty who at age 11 killed himself after non-stop bullying. Kirk, outwardly a simple man in a rural community, Perkins Oklahoma, is determined to help other kids who went through the pain his son did and put a stop to bullying. He founds an organization, Stand for the Silent, dedicated to providing a voice for children who are being bullied.
All of these stories (and many others like them) are heartbreaking and inspire feelings of compassion. Watching Alex stoically endure the abuse certainly makes the heart ache for him, not to mention bring forth feelings of admiration for a young man who has an enormous reserve of strength (he also has a great smile that lights up a room). His mother is torn apart by feelings of inadequacy, thinking that she is failing as a mother because she’s not protecting her son.
The truth is that the failure isn’t hers. School districts have long treated bullying as a natural product of growing up. “Boys will be boys,” seems to be the most common response, delivered with a shrug and a pair of “what can you do?” outstretched arms.
There are no easy answers and the film provides none. However there doesn’t seem to be much of a message here beyond “bullying is bad” which is a bit of a no-brainer. There’s no attempt at trying to understand what causes kids to bully. I would be willing to bet that there is something going on in their homes that creates such fear that causes the need to take it out on other kids, because bullying is and always has been an outgrowth of fear. Whether it is fear of something different or fear of being bullied themselves, most bullies are reacting to something. Of course, there is always the occasional sociopath who gets their jollies from inflicting pain but by and large bullying is learned behavior. It doesn’t occur without a cause.
I would have also appreciated more diversity in the stories here. Not that Ja’Meya (whose mother shows great compassion and tenacity) and Kelby (who I also admired for her courage in refusing to run from the bullying) didn’t deserve to have their stories told. However, judging from the film bullying is a small town problem, mostly confined to the Bible Belt and more rural communities.
Bullying is in fact a universal epidemic. It exists nearly everywhere that there are kids, from exclusive prep schools in the Northeast to urban schools in big cities to enlightened communities in California. Hirsch should know that; he was a victim of bullying in his youth in Long Island (as I was in mine in the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles). You don’t get that sense here and I think it does a disservice to its own message because of it.
However despite these flaws the message here is still a powerful one, so much so that I’m willing to ignore some of the film’s missed opportunities in order to call attention to it. This is a movie that should be seen by every student in America, and by most of their parents. This should be a topic of conversation at the dinner table. Bullying can be stopped; it takes the unity of students, parents, teachers and administrators in order to do it. Standing up together makes us stronger; it also protects us from bullies who tend to prey on the weak and the defenseless.
Seeing this makes me regret that in my own school days I didn’t stand up for those who were isolated and alone. I wish in my own school days I had befriended those who needed it. It also bears repeating that bullying isn’t always done just with fists or physicality; it’s also done with words. Joking about sexual orientation, physical appearance or socially awkward behavior might be good for a few cheap laughs but you never know how devastating those words can be in someone’s life. Whether in your workplace, your church, your neighborhood or your school, there are usually people who don’t fit in and who whether consciously or unconsciously get excluded. Adult or child, taking the time to reach out to those who don’t fit in seems to me to be the right thing to do and if this movie gets across that message, then it is as important a film as any you’ll ever see.
REASONS TO GO: Excellently captures the effects of bulling on kids and their families. Heartbreaking at times but a message that needs to be seen by kids and their parents everywhere.
REASONS TO STAY: No interviews with bullies or their families to get any sort of insight as to why kids bully. Fails to get across that this is a universal problem that is prevalent in all social stratums and all over the country.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some rough language, depictions of kid-on-kid violence and some fairly adult conversations about teen suicide.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally slapped with an “R” rating by the Motion Picture Association of America for bad language which was appealed by the distributor, arguing that would exclude the audience the movie was intended for. When that appeal was denied the rating was surrendered and initially the plan was to release the movie unrated. However after a large outcry the MPAA relented and the filmmakers edited some instances of bad language (although a crucial scene in which a child is bullied on a school bus was left intact) and the film finally received a “PG-13” rating.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/21/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100. The movie can be considered to be critically acclaimed.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Laramie Inside Out
ELLEN DEGENERES LOVERS: The movie has been championed by the talk show host and was at least partially inspired by an appearance on her show by the mom of Carl Walker Hoover, a young man who endured anti-gay bullying until he was driven to commit suicide at the age of 11 in 2009.
FINAL RATING: 8/10
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