Story

Bully is a documentary that graphically depicts peer-to-peer bullying in middle schools across America.

The movie opens with David Long’s disturbing story of his son Tyler’s constant bullying at the hands of his school peers, which led to his suicide at the age of 17. It goes on to track the bullying and abuse endured by three school children over the course of a school year.

Alex Libby, a 12-year-old boy in Iowa, is brutally taunted and physically intimidated on a daily basis while travelling on the school bus. Alex’s victimisation becomes so serious and threatening that the filmmakers begin to fear for his safety. They break with protocol by showing the footage to Alex’s parents, school authorities and the police. Kelby Johnson is a 16-year-old girl in Oklahoma who is bullied and ostracised for being gay. There is also 14-year-old Ja’Maya Jackson from Mississippi. After years of being bullied and victimised, she reacts by taking a loaded gun onto her school bus and threatening her tormentors with it.

The movie also shows a second suicide – that of 11-year-old Ty Smalley. We see his parents attending their son’s funeral and their participation in an anti-bullying organisation called Stand for the Silent.

The documentary shows how bullying is such an entrenched and complex problem that school administrators can’t make their schools a safe environment for students.

Themes

Bullying; suicide; violence in schools

Violence

This movie has scenes of brutal taunting, victimisation, verbal abuse, social ostracism, physical intimidation and associated emotional trauma involving school students. For example:

  • There is an emotional account of how Tyler Long’s family found their son’s body hanging in his closet after he committed suicide. His mother describes how her husband found their son’s body and how his younger brother also saw Tyler’s body. Tyler’s suicide was a direct result of bullying. Following Tyler’s suicide, several students went to school with nooses tied around their necks.
  • Tyler Long’s father describes how his son was emotionally tormented and bullied by his classmates. They shoved Tyler into school lockers, stole his clothes during gym and forced him to walk naked through the gym, pushed him against urinals and made him wee on himself, and told him that he was worthless and that he should ‘go hang himself’.
  • On a school bus teenage boys taunt and physically assault 12-year-old Alex. They repeatedly hit Alex in the head with a pencil, punch him in the neck and back, and ram his head into the back of a bus seat. One boy threatens to stab him. Another boy tells Alex that he is going to break Alex’s Adam’s apple, which will kill him. A boy threatens to cut Alex’s face off, and another boy says he will kill Alex and shove a broomstick up his bottom.
  • Kelby Johnson is sixteen. She talks about her experiences of being victimised because of her sexual preferences. She says she was thrown onto the windshield of a pickup truck after being purposely rammed by some teenage boys who dislike gays. Kelby refers to herself as a former ‘cutter’ (someone who self-mutilates) and says that she has attempted suicide three times.
  • The movie includes surveillance footage of 14-year-old Ja’Maya Jackson on a school bus waving a gun and shouting threats at other teenagers as she walks down the aisle. A teenage boy tackles her and shouts, ‘I’ve got it’ (the gun). Later Ja’Maya talks about how she brought the gun onto the bus to stand up for herself and scare students who had been bullying and threatening her.

Content that may disturb children

Under 8

In addition to the violent scenes mentioned above, this movie has some scenes that could scare or disturb children under eight years. For example, one scene shows the very emotional funeral procession of 11-year-old Ty Smalley, including pallbearers (one a 11-year-old boy) carrying Ty’s casket. An 11-year-old boy cries and touches Ty’s (unseen) body in the open casket, and the scene shows Ty’s casket being lowered into the ground. 

From 8-13

Children in this age group, particularly those who have been victims of bullying, might also be disturbed by the violent and disturbing scenes mentioned above and by the reaction of teachers. For example:

  • An upset boy holding an icepack to his head approaches a teacher. The boy tells the teacher that another boy slammed his head into a nail. A second boy says, ‘He got hit pretty good’. The teacher checks the boy’s head and finds no wound. He dismisses the boy’s complaint.
  • Kelby reports that one of her teachers taught in class that homosexuals were burned at the stake, and deliberately directed the class’s attention towards Kelby.

Over 13

Children in this age group and some adults are likely to be disturbed by some of the scenes mentioned above. The scenes might be particularly upsetting for anyone who has been a victim of bullying. 

Sexual references

Bully contains occasional low-level sexual references. For example:

  • A teenage girl says that she’s gay, and several other teenage girls say that they’re straight. Another girl says that she’s ‘K-gay’.
  • Students say that they have been called ‘faggots’ and ‘fags’. 

Alcohol, drugs and other substances

None of concern 

Nudity and sexual activity

There is some sexual activity in this movie, including when Kelby holds another girl’s hand. A later scene shows the two girls with their arms wrapped around each other. 

Product placement

None of concern 

Coarse language

Bully contains some explicit coarse language, put-downs and name-calling. 

Ideas to discuss with your children

Bully is a frank and hard-hitting documentary about bullying in American middle and high schools. The movie profiles several victims of bullying over a one-year period, exploring not only the direct impact of bullying on the victim, but also on the victim’s family and community. It is not designed to entertain but to inform, and is too intense for younger teenagers. Even older viewers, particularly those who have themselves been victims of bullying, might find it upsetting. The reactions of some teachers to bullying incidents are particularly disturbing.

The main message from this movie is that bullying is a serious problem of epidemic proportions across American schools, and it destroys young people’s lives. Solving issues of bullying and protecting bullying victims needs a holistic approach by schools, students, parents and the general community. You could talk with your children about whether the problem in Australian schools is as serious.

You could also talk about the problems associated with telling children to ‘stand up for themselves’ without giving them positive ways of doing this. Both Alex and Ja’Maya are told by their parents to stand up for themselves but in neither case do the parents give specific instructions on how their child could do this. In Ja’Maya’s case, this advice results in her taking a loaded gun onto her school bus. She now faces the possibility of years behind bars.

Values in this movie that you could reinforce with your children include resilience in the face of adversity. Tyler’s parents show resilience when they keep going and support their other children through the difficult time after their son’s suicide. Ty’s parents join support groups and find ways of making the general public aware of the devastation caused by peer bullying at school.    

You might be interested to read our articles on bullying at preschool, bullying at school, adolescent bullying and cyberbullying.