Lee Hirsch’s “The Bully Project” serves as a call to action against abuse of students by their peers as it follows, over the course of a year, five sobering case histories of unrelenting schoolyard persecution. Crosscutting among the stories, Hirsch supplies little discussion of the whys, wherefores or history of the phenomenon, but rather concentrates on the kids, parents and school officials directly involved. Timely subject matter should generate buzz for this Weinstein Co. pickup, which is slated for municipal/educational showings and also figures to translate well to the smallscreen.
Docu reveals that more than 18 million American kids a year are affected by bullying, with some driven to suicide — including two of the cases profiled here. The five studies represented in the film show different types of situations, reactions and (perhaps) resolutions to an endemic problem.
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By the time Hirsch catches up with scholarly, quiet 14-year-old Ja’meya, she is in a reformatory facing 22 felony counts for drawing a gun on fellow school bus riders who had been tormenting her for years.
In the next study, featuring 14-year-old Alex, a camera provides firsthand footage of such harrassment, observing a bus ride in which kids knock things out of his hands, shove, strangle and punch him, keeping up a steady stream of vituperative, sadistically detailed death threats while gleefully being egged on by peers.
Perhaps most shocking is the extent to which this violent behavior is accepted as normal, shrugged off as “boys will be boys.” One assistant principal forces a bully and his victim to shake hands to “resolve” the conflict. Alex’s father is seen advising him to stand up to the other kids to prove he’s not a punching bag, as if that were a prerequisite for being treated like a human being.
Certainly no one would mistake 16-year-old star athlete Kelby for a punching bag. But when she comes out as gay, she is insulted, ostracized, deliberately struck by a car and denied a place on sports teams she once dominated. In interviews, she initially refuses to leave her small Oklahoma hometown for more tolerant pastures, adamant in her belief she can make a difference. After months of oppression, however, she realizes she cannot do so alone.
Hirsch’s film begins and ends with interviews of the families of two boys — one 17, the other 12 — who committed suicide to escape bullying. After battling school boards in vain, they now network with other victims, their families and loved ones, seeking to effect change collectively. Hirsch documents the action as they set up town meetings and statehouse rallies to build a grassroots movement to honor the memories of their sons.