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'Bully' fights back: Hard-hitting film looks at impacts of being tormented

Published: Thursday, April 12 2012 6:57 p.m. MDT

"The sad joke of this ruling is that the children depicted in 'Bully' already live in a world rated R — for the physical and psychic violence they suffer, and for the vicious language directed at them," film critic Richard Corliss recently wrote for Time magazine.

As disturbing as some of the language in Bully is — most of it is confined to that one bus scene involving Alex — the movie's retrospective look at the two relatively recent suicides is even worse. Ty Smalley, 11, and Tyler Long, 17, both killed themselves after years of degrading bullying.

Tyler's father David said his son wasn't the most athletic of boys in his Georgia high school, and was always the last to be chosen. "Nobody would be on his team because they said he was a geek and a fag and they didn't want to play with him," David Long says in the film. "And it took a toll on him early in middle school to where he cried — and then it got to the point where he didn't cry anymore."

In search of solutions, the parents of 11-year-old Ty Smalley have started an anti-bullying organization, Stand for the Silent, and have coordinated a series of vigils for bullying victims.

At a Stand for the Silent rally in "Bully," Ty's father, Kirk Smalley, exhorts the crowd to "go out there and find that one child, that new kid, who just moved to town, standing over there by himself. Be his friend, smile, be willing to help him out when he's pushed down, (and) be willing to stand up for him.

"If we all do it together, we will change the world."

Indeed, the underlying theme of "Bully" centers on the fact that everyone can — and should — make a difference to stop bullying. To that end, the film encourages students to "stand up, not stand by" when they see someone being picked on.

"The message of encouraging kids to 'stand up to bullies and not stand by' ultimately reinforces the fact that everyone can make a difference when it comes to the issue of bullying," Stanford professor and Common Sense Media CEO James Steyer said. "And this issue is not going away."

What you can do

Be advised that "Bully" deals with sensitive subject matter such as teen suicide, and includes coarse language (especially at the beginning of the film). Depending on the preference of the movie theater in your area showing "Bully," the film may bear an R-rating or, as the result of a last-minute agreement between the MPAA and the Weinstein Company, be advertised as "unrated." Common Sense Media suggests that kids under 13 probably shouldn't go and that those who do should go with their parents.

"The movie deals with really tough issues," Steyer said. "It can be heartbreaking, because it deals with very heavy conflicts like suicide — in fact that was the most difficult thing for me as a person. And it doesn't paint a great picture of how schools are handling this issue. But the truth is, this is reality for younger teens today."

Despite the subject matter and language, Common Sense Media calls the documentary "critically important." Steyer's organization offers several suggestions of ways for parents to talk with their kids about the subject of bullying, even if they deem the movie inappropriate to watch because of language:

Families can talk about ways kids can stand up instead of standing by, and how one person can make a difference by doing so.

Parents can talk to their kids about teen suicide and where kids in despair can turn for help.

While bullying is often physical, sometimes words hurt just as much. Parents can talk with their children about the different forms of bullying and what has the most lasting impact.

While "Bully" doesn't talk much about cyberbullying, Common Sense Media suggests parents talk to their kids about how this issue impacts them and their peers.

If kids feel they are being ignored by administrators, talk to them about where else can they turn for help.

Full circle

As upsetting as "Bully" is, in the end it's a story of empowerment and triumph. And nobody embodies that fact more than Alex Libby.

On Feb. 23 at the appeal hearing to appeal the MPAA's R-rating of "Bully," Alex came to address the panel. Now three years older than the boy the film shows bullies tormenting, Alex exuded all kinds of confidence sitting at the 20-foot conference table in his royal-blue button-down shirt and black checkered tie.

A month later when the Libby family appeared together on CNN, Alex updated Anderson Cooper on where life finds him now.

"Life's pretty good. I have good grades, tons of friends and my school is amazing."

EMAIL: jaskar@desnews.com

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