Art Mission screens provocative film

Reviewed by George Basler

In the midst of big-budget summer blockbusters flooding local multiplexes, a small but important film has opened at the Art Mission & Theater in downtown Binghamton.

Bully, directed by Lee Hirsch, is a documentary that focuses on schoolyard persecution and  its impact on students and their families. While some may consider sitting through a documentary as a far-from-entertaining way to spend a Sunday afternoon, I found Bully anything but bland. It’s extraordinarily compelling as it tackles a topic that has been much in the news.

The film attracted some media buzz when it was first released because of the use of the “f” word by students in some scenes. The language earned it an NC-17 rating, meaning the film was off limits to anyone under 17. Controversy ensued with The Weinstein Company, which is distributing the film, and its supporters contended that the rating meant students — the audience that most needs to see the film — couldn’t get through the theater door. The dispute ended when the filmakers dropped some of the “f” words, and the rating was changed to PG-13.

Buzz aside, however, the showing I went to last weekend was sparsely attended. Besides my wife and me, four other people were in the audience on a rainy Sunday afternoon (June 3). That’s too bad because, while flawed, the film certainly tackles an important issue and raises some provocative questions. You won’t be bored, that’s for sure.

The film focuses on five families. Two of the families’ sons — one, 17, the other, 12 — committed suicide after being bullied. One teenage girl, Kelby, is ostracized after coming out as gay. Another girl, Ja’meya, is in reform school after pulling a gun on a school bus to confront students who had  been taunting her.

But, perhaps, the most heartbreaking story centers on a 13-year-old named Alex. He seems like a sweet-natured kid who just doesn’t fit in because he’s nerdy and labeled “different.” Born prematurely, he’s called “fish face” because of the way he looks, and he doesn’t seem to have any real friends. A graphic scene on the school bus shows him getting the crap knocked out of him. This was being done by students who are cursing , punching, and stabbing him with pencils. (The violence escalated to the point that the filmakers turned the film footage over to school officials and Alex’s parents.)

Equally wrenching are Alex’s scenes with his family. In one scene, Alex’s mother questions him about his treatment on the bus and tells him the tormenting students are not his friends. “If they’re not my friends, what friends do I have?” Alex answers, his eyes never focusing on the camera.

These scenes are stongly emotional.

Ironically, one criticism I have is that, in focusing on the emotional struggles of the five families, the movie doesn’t put the problem of bullying in context. The movie downplays, or ignores, the whys of the problem, the historical context and what can be done about it. I would have liked to have seen a couple of interviews with student bullies on what motivated their actions. An expert to provide background and context also would have been welcomed.

School officials seem well meaning, but befuddled and defensive. Besides being emotionally devastated, the parents are angry, lashing out at school officials. The film ends with some anti-bullying rallies organized by parents. Maybe, the filmmakers intended this to be a hopeful conclusion. But the crowds at these  events were small. And the rallies — with their hand-holding, candles and balloons released for victims — struck me as an over-simplistic approach to a complex problem.

In fact, the film made me wonder if there is a solution. Just as adults seem genetically programmed to fight wars, are children genetically programmed to pick on the weak and defenseless? I’ll let you answer that, but I couldn’t help but think of the novel Lord of the Flies, in which a group of English boarding-school students descend into savagery after being stranded on a remote island.

That doesn’t mean I want to give up. The film makes it clear the “boys will be boys” attitude doesn’t cut it. In my lifetime I’ve seen attitudes toward social issues such as racial integration and homosexuality change dramatically.  Maybe that can happen with bullying. I’m encouraged with the Olweus program being started in some local schools. Developed in the Netherlands, it focuses on changing the climate in schools and having students who would normally be bystanders to bullying step up to say the behavior is unacceptable.

Still, there are no easy answers; if there are answers at all.

In the meantime, the Art Mission & Theater should be applauded for playing a film such as Bully.

Don’t get me wrong. I love glossy Hollywood films, but having a theater that shows quality movies that otherwise would never be shown here is a real asset to the community.

This week’s showtimes: Bully will be screened at the Art Mission & Theater, 61 Prospect Ave., Binghamton, at 5:15, 7:10 and 9:10 p.m. today (June 8); at 3, 5:15, 7:10 and 9:10 p.m. Saturday (June 9); at 3, 5:15 and 7:10 p.m. Sunday (June 11) and at 5:15 and 7:10 p.m. Monday through Thursday (June 12-14).

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