Saturday, April 14, 2012

Bully Movie Review and Commentary from a Bullying Prevention Specialist Part 1

Bully Movie Review and Commentary from a Bullying Prevention Specialist   
Part 1 of 2  
Is Bully The Anti-Bullying Movie Every Teen, Parent and School Teacher Should See?
Last night, April 13th 2012, I went to see the much anticipated ANTI-BULLYING documentary movie "BULLYby award-winning director Lee Hirsch. You may recognize BULLY from the media coverage of the controversy between the MPAA and the Weinstein company over the film's R rating. After some slight editing of some expletives, the rating was eventually changed to PG-13.

BULLY Movie Documentary
I have had numerous requests for my views on the movie since the initial trailer was released. While I was tempted to write the review last night, I opted instead to give it more time to contemplate my blog post. Perhaps you will understand the reason for the delay as you read on.

A Brief Synopsis of Bully
For roughly a year, the documentary filmmaker and director Lee Hirsch follows the lives of five families with children who are experiencing bullying or had experienced bullying. It is an inside look at the gritty world of today's kids in small town America.

Bully's Main Character is a Socially Awkward 12-Year-Old Boy
The subjects of the film include a Sioux City Iowa 12-year-old boy named Alex, an awkward tween who has difficulty making friends and fitting in with his peers. The audience gets a glimpse inside of Alex grueling experience just taking the bus to school each day. Kids are seen hitting, choking, pencil poking, and knocking his head into the back of the bus seat.

 Based on what I saw, this is done in a manner clearly meant to dominate and hurt, but not severely injure (despite how other more sensational accounts have described it). To me it is clearly inter-male social dominance behavior - and Alex has no clue on how to put it into proper context, nor clearly define personal boundaries. It was difficult to watch for many in the audience who were visibly uncomfortable as the images permeated their sheltered reality.

Out and Ostricised Kelby - "Love Thy Neighbor"
Tuttle Oklahama 16-year-old Kelby's story depicts a lesbian girl suffering from ostracism and intolerance from people she has known her whole life.  BULLY shows her courageously attempting to change the social climate and attitudes toward her and the supportive role her family plays in her difficult situation.  Ultimately, her family decides to remove her from this school in order to help their daughter.

A Girl Pulls a Gun on a School Bus
Bully also shows the plight of a 14-year-old girl who brandished a gun on a school bus after claiming she had been relentlessly bullied. Actual video footage was used from the incident where the girl, clearly emulating gangster-like violence, points the gun sideways in the air and barks orders. I heard two different whispered comments from Scottsdale moviegoers as they recognized that a "14 year old girl had a tattoo on her arm". I found that interesting.

Lack of Alternatives - The Peace Education Conflict Avoidance Vacuum
What I know about teaching peace education and self defense is that when you deny children appropriate force options and coping mechanisms some will resort to whatever means they can to regain some sense of control. If you are sincerely interested in the subject I would recommend reading a book by one of my mentors called Stop Teaching Our Kids To Kill by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman. (No violent video games before age 8 - research clearly shows that it changes brain chemistry.) "Garbage in - garbage out" my Mom always used to say.

Heart-Wrenching Themes May Be Intense for Young Viewers
The movie also takes on two tragic accounts of families dealing with their child's suicide and implies a direct link to bullying (more on that later). Hirsch reveals the gut-wrenching story of Murray County Georgia parents Tina and David Long who lost their son to suicide. The 17 year old was told by kids at school that he should go home and hang himself - and he did. Mother Tina takes viewers on a tour of the room and closet where the tragic event took place and explains how the room now serves as headquarters for a campaign to keep Tyler's memory alive and bring attention to the issue of bullying.

The other story reveals the grief and devastation of a child's suicide and the vacuous wake left in these parent's lives. Their pain is captured in such an utterly raw manner, the audience is easily drawn into the film and their tragic story. The message I got from it had more to do with the tragedy of teen suicide rather than a causal relationship to bullying.
The connection was not clearly made to my way satisfaction and I would advise caution in making such judgments. I'll come back to this later to discuss my concern with this portrayal and its link to child safety. For now, I'll defer to psychologists on this one as I that is not my area of expertise, nor have I seen the research to make such connection. I just hope that the film maker is not exploiting these parents in their time of greatest grief.

My heart and prayers go out to the family in this time of unimaginable grief and loss.

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Poignant Example of Denial and Covering Incompetence?
Based on Hirsch's editing, the administration, in particular the assistant principal of Alex's middle school, comes off as particularly inept and more interested in defending the staff's position and choices of action. As with most independent film documentaries, one must take this with a grain of salt. However, those who have suffered bullying may be able to identify as I did with this pathetic cover-your-butt approach found in failed leadership.
One of the good things that independent films like this can do is to prompt and provoke. Hopefully it can lead to discussions and the need for putting things into context, the importance of accountability, empathy and compassion.

Personal Stories Tug at Heart Strings
BULLY reveals the feelings of helplessness and powerlessness from those who lack fundamental safety skills and appropriate answers. Those in my field know that this goes on all the time because we see the children and parents who have fallen through the cracks.  For others, this may just be the right kind of timely wake-up call to spark some positive action.

Should I Take My Child To See Bully?
I would advise parents seeing this movie first to know if it is right for their child. In my view, it would depend on the child's personality, maturity and how they handle themes of suicide, aggressive behavior, crass language, threats and so on. It would also depend on the parent's ability to put it into context so they do not overly generalize and can extract relevant themes or lessons.

Is Bully OK for Younger Children?
For younger children, you might wait until they are a bit older and choose to rent it and have a family discussion.
I think a parent needs to clearly define the goal of watching such a film and have a meaningful discussion before and after viewing it, should they decide it is right for their child. For some kids, it may be a wake-up call and a catalyst for healthy discussion - especially those in middle school and high school. BULLY could be used as a tool to encourage empathy and a hero culture.

Open Communication at Home is Better Bullying Prevention
It is important that children feel safe to share experiences, have their own views without judgement or overreaction from parents. From the feedback I get directly from children, they say one of the biggest reasons they don't tell their parents things is that Mom and Dad over react.  Kids sometimes feel that the parents will make it worse.  Keep in mind that trust is built over time.  A calm approach with a heart to listen without trying to immediately advise is the key to communication and a trusted relationship with your child.  Seeking first to understand, empathize and walk in your child's shoes so to speak can go a long way in opening doors to talking about difficult subjects.

Part 2 
Taking The Perspective of a Bullying Prevention Specialist and Professional Protector
For the remainder of the BULLY movie article I wanted to take on the review more from the perspective of a professional protector and bullying specialist. My hope is to offer some thought provoking points to consider, and some opinions rather than just a simple film review...
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