Last month, I spoke with a young mother whose daughter is staring in the face of entry into the U.S. public school system. As our little girls scooped sand together, she innocently asked what I thought of the American education system – she couldn't have known what a loaded question that is. My face fell. Concerned but optimistic, the mom, a Russian ballroom dancer in the states on a work visa, searched my face as I struggled to conjure a simple response that could break through our language barrier – an endearing impediment among adults, but, she confided, the source of pre-K (pre-K!) torment for her suddenly sullen daughter. I frowned, held out two fists joined together and snapped them apart. “Broken.” She understood all too well, and collapsed, childlike and petrified on an empty swing. “Why?”
Later that night, my son's face burrowed into my chest, the lenses of his glasses fogged with moisture, as he tearily related his own elementary-school horror stories – punches, insults on the bus ride home designed for delayed-release effectiveness like bunker-busting emotional missiles (“Wait'll he finds out what it means,” I imagine his tormenters saying) an apparent campaign to blacklist him from the cafeteria table – because what? He's skinny? He's admittedly sharp-tongued? He wears glasses? Why?
It's what everyone's asking, and even its asking can trigger land mines of guilt, confusion and, as the stirring documentary Bully makes clear, antiquated notions of character-building: “We all get picked on when we're kids,” we tell them, but really tell ourselves. “You have to get some thicker skin.” Here's what they hear: If you're a pussy now, you'll always be a pussy. Here's what we know: As we drill that into their heads, we're increasingly losing our children.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people (about 4,400 per year), and for every tragedy, there are 100 more attempts. More and more, the nation is catching on that bullying, in all its twisted forms, is a major culprit, and the issue has taken on a life of its own. Unless you've been imprisoned under a rock by that mean kid with the freckles, you know that Bully was the source of one of the ugliest fights the Motion Picture Academy has ever endured: The initial decision to slap the film with an R-rating thanks to scenes in which bullies curse at other kids, would make it difficult for children to see in theaters and impossible under most district guidelines to screen in classrooms. (Last week, the MPAA finally agreed to change the rating to PG-13 following the removal of a few F-bombs.)
It's not that Bully, directed by Lee Hirsch (Amandla!), is particularly groundbreaking or unflinchingly incendiary; it is, in fact, a quiet film that knows how to use its subjects' pregnant pauses when confronted with direct questions and redirect it back at the audience as enlightenment, not condemnation. It helps that Hirsch has managed to spotlight some of the smartest, most raw and unfiltered kids we've seen depicted onscreen. There's Alex, a skinny Iowan kid with glasses who has spoken up as much as anyone can and has nothing left to do but silently wish he was somewhere else. There's also a brief scene of such exquisite logic-bombing from one student to an administrator that any parent would be proud to sign the pink slip sure to follow: After an altercation in which a larger boy physically abuses a smaller one – an ongoing scuffle, it seems – the two are forced to shake hands. The smaller one refuses to abide, and the administrator tells him that makes him just as culpable as the larger kid. “No, it doesn't,” the smaller kid responds. “It's not the same.” She has no response.
It's not the same, of course, and Bully is most effective when those unanswerable truths hang in the air between otherwise intelligent adults, parents and teachers alike. One can practically sense their fallback answer incoming every time they're backed into a corner: “Kids are cruel, you know?” We may never know why, but we know our solutions are no longer good enough. No matter their age, show this to kids you care about, and tell them it gets better.