Film puts a face on bullying

For one teen featured in the PG-13 film "Bully," hour-long rides on the school bus led to devastating life-altering consequences (Photo: The Weinstein Company)

As the character-driven documentary “Bully” opens today in Arizona theaters, its creators — Lee Hirsch and Cynthia Lowen — are putting a face on bullying. Actually — five of them. The film, now rated PG-13, features the stories of three youth — Alex (12), Kelby (16) Ja’Meya (14) — and two families who lost a child to bullying-related suicide.

As I chatted with Lowen by phone Thursday morning, she spoke of these and other families they encounted while filming “Bully”” over the course of the 2009/2010 school year. Her voice was filled with genuine empathy and conviction. It’s clear that preventing further suffering is at the heart of Hirsch and Lowen’s efforts to assure a wide audience for the work.

The five families featured in the film were selected, she shared, because “each of their experiences touched on a different facet of bullying.” Eager to paint a comprehensive picture of bullying in America, the filmmakers sought “families who would speak to different aspects of bullying that others could relate to.”

Alex of Sioux City, Iowa, is bullied for simply looking and acting somewhat differently than his peers. He’s a sweet-natured kid just starting middle school who longs to fit in, but gets greeted by slurs, curses and sickening threats even before he can get on the school bus.

“Middle school is ground zero for bullying,” says Lowen — who adds that “it definitely begins before that.” Lowen notes that kids in middle school are trying to navigate social circles while working to discover who they are and where they fit in. They’re all learning, Lowen says, to “become independent people in the world” — and exploring ways to “use their power as individuals.” How they go about it, she says, is influenced by home, community and family dynamics.

Kelby of Tuttle, Oklahoma, has faced ridicule by fellow students, plus teachers, since coming out as a lesbian. So too have her parents, whose longtime friends and fellow church-goers now want nothing to do the family they feel is steeped in sin. Despite her parents’ offer to relocate to a larger, more diverse city, Kelby insists on staying in Tuttle — refusing to let those who torment her win by chasing her away. She’s claiming personal power in positive ways.

Je’Maya of Yazoo County, Mississippi was relentlessly bullied during one-hour bus rides to and from school — until the day she took a loaded handgun from her mother’s closet and brandished it on the bus, hoping to scare off her tormenters. While bullies went unpunished, the teen landed in both a juvenile detention facility and a residential psychiatric program.

Despite the serious, life-altering consequences of bullying, plenty of grown-ups captured by “Bully” footage fail to recognize its existence, let alone acknowledge its dangers. You know, if your child’s ever been victimized, that bullies are skilled at finding situations where adults are absent, not paying attention or eager to deny any signs of trouble. Scenes featuring misguided adult bystanders met with the most audible expressions of disgust from movie-goers the night I first saw the film.

Doing nothing is doing something. Just ask parents David and Tina Long, and Kirk and Laura Smalley, whose children might be alive today had someone taken a stand to stop the bullying they endured with fatal consequences. Tyler Long was just 17 years old the day he hung himself. The Smalley’s son was just 11. Both families now champion the cause of bullying prevention.

Despite some dark moments, the film “Bully” ends on a hopeful note –highlighting the work of diverse individuals and communities in creating schools and communities where bullying is no longer tolerated. We’ve come a long way since filming for bullying began, says Lowen, when the issue was “largely invisible.”

Lowen notes that “There’s been a remarkable uptick in events reported.” Not because bullying wasn’t taking place before, but because “people feel empowered to talk about it” now — and are “beginning to develop a language” for doing so. “We’re now at the point of really recognizing this as a culture,” reflects Lowen.

Lowen recalls that “bullying was barely on the radar” when they began work on the film, adding that it’s since “become part of our national zeitgeist.” The first step in fixing the problem, she says, is for each of us to feel like “this effects me.” Once you’ve seen “Bully” — which makes clear the profound impact of bullying on individuals, families, schools and communities — you’ll have no doubt. And you’ll have no excuse for not acting to end it.

— Lynn

Note: A book titled “The Essential Guide to Bullying: Prevention and Intervention” written by Cindy Miller and Cynthia Lowen will be available Sept. 4 — click here to learn more from Penguin imprint Alpha Books. Click here to learn more about “Bully” and The Bully Project.

Coming up: Art gets daring with Keith Haring, From “class clown” to “La Cage Aux Folles,” That should have been my first clue…

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