They say there is no such thing as bad publicity and if you are promoting a movie, that is generally the truth. Any publicity, any mention of your film will generally sell more tickets. Even if all of the mentions are negative, some people, all of the other 'thornhills' out there, will go to see what all of the bad word of mouth is about.
But if the publicity is good, or unrelated to the quality of the film, the movie stands to gain from the attention. "Bully" is the latest example of a film receiving a lot of publicity and gaining viewers from this publicity. And that's a good thing, because the film needs to be seen by lots of people to get the message out to help anyone and everyone that could be affected by bullying.
A brief recap. The film received an R-rating due to the use of the F-word a few times. Keep in mind; this is a documentary, so the footage shows real kids using this word in a negative way towards another kid. But if a film receives an 'R', many theater chains restrict access to the film. Worse yet, many schools would not be able to show the film, and use it as a learning tool. So the Weinstein Company decided to release the film 'Unrated'. Unfortunately, the major theater chains tend to restrict access to 'Unrated" films, if they show them at all, even more than they would an 'R' rating. Generally, an "Unrated" film would or should receive an 'NC-17' or 'X' rating, ratings reserved for films with explicit sex. Thankfully, only one of the major chains refused to show the film. The others restricted their showings to a handful of theaters in major cities on the East and West Coasts. But word of mouth, protests and action by concerned viewers have helped to get this changed and the film is slowly expanding to more and more theaters.
Great. That is one problem solved. But why did "Bully" get an 'R' rating initially when a film like "Taken" gets a 'PG-13'? This is part of an ongoing debate about the usefulness of the Ratings Board and all of their outdated (?) idiosyncrasies. Many have long decried the fact that the Ratings Board tends to look at scenes depicting intimacy between two consenting adults much more harshly than extremely violent fare. Essentially, they are making it easier to watch violence than to watch passion and love. I would prefer my own kids to see passion and love and be influenced by that rather than by excessive violence. But violence is apparently more acceptable and much more successful at the box office.
That said, I think the ratings should be used as intended, as a guideline. When I was growing up my mother let me see practically any film I wanted to. And the simple reason for this is she knew I knew the films were not real. So I went to see horror films, adult themed dramas and R-rated comedies when I was young. If I ever saw anything that disturbed me, I knew it wasn't real so it didn't stay with me. If I needed to talk about it, I did. If your kid wants to see an R-rated film, ask them why. If you are satisfied with the answer, let them go. I have a friend who goes to an R-rated film his daughter wants to see first to see if there is anything that would disturb her. If he is okay with the film and thinks it will be OK for his daughter, he lets her go. When I asked if he was OK with a film containing excessive language, he said it didn't concern him as much as violence because he was sure his daughter heard worse on the schoolyard every day. Both good alternatives.
"Bully", directed and photographed by Lee Hirsch, concentrates on the stories of five pre-teen and teen boys and girls, all of whom are the victims of bullying at school. The overall power of a film like this depends on the emotional impact of each of the individual stories. All five are very moving, but they don't have the same impact and that creates an uneven viewing experience.
Kelby is a teen girl who lives in a small town. When she realizes she is a lesbian and people in the town begin to find out, she and her family are virtually shut out by neighbors and lifelong friends. Her father offers to move the family, but Kelby doesn't want to give in. Kelby is a quiet young lady and doesn't talk a lot. The bulk of the story comes from listening to her dad talk about the effects of this news on their town, and how their friends and neighbors reacted. The majority of the time we spend with Kelby is spent with her and her friends, standing around, smiling, and goofing off. This story is interesting and moving, but more because of how her father relates affects of the bullying of his daughter to us. Obviously every kid is going to be different, but we need to hear the story from Kelby, to feel her emotion and how it changed her. Just watching her stand around and goof off with her friends doesn't accomplish this.
Ja'Maya is a young girl who gets arrested because she acts out against the kids who were bullying her. Her mother fills us in on the details and the story moves forward from there. Again, the story is powerful, but we need to hear more from Ja'Maya. Or have more access to see how it changes her.
These two stories, while powerful, just don't hit the same level of emotion of the other stories.
The film centers on Alex, an awkward, slightly gawky pre-teen who is so desperate for friends that he comes to think of the kids who are bullying him as his friends. When his parents eventually discover the magnitude of the problem, he states that if the bullies stop, who will be his friends? It is a heart wrenching moment and you can see the pain in his mother's eyes. Alex doesn't quite seem to realize this is a problem and that sort of amplifies the emotion for us even more.
The filmmakers are allowed access to Alex's bus and record a lot of footage of the other kids bullying him. When the problem gets out of hand, they show the footage to his parents and the people in charge of his school. His parents are mortified and arrange a meeting with the vice principal, a woman who is so out of touch she elicits groans from the audience. Before this meeting, the filmmakers follow her as she patrols the halls of the school. She watches as another young man is bullied and stops both kids, insisting they shake hands and make-up. When the victim won't, he wants nothing to do with the other kid; she turns on the victim and decides he needs to be disciplined. She goes so far as to say that because he wouldn't forgive the bully and shake his hand, he is as bad as the bully. Just when I thought my mouth couldn't hit the floor any faster, her meeting with Alex's parents just illustrates the full extent of her lack of empathy and awareness.
Alex's story is very sad, and I have to admit that I felt more than a few parallels between our lives. The funny thing is that you just know Alex is going to grow up and completely change. His quirky look will deepen and probably develop into a handsome profile, giving him the looks of an Abercrombie & Fitch model. Isn't that how most movie stars and models got started? Aren't they always the fat kid or the awkward kid? Clearly, the parallels between our lives end there.
The film opens with a father telling us the story of his teen son. As soon as he begins talking, and you realize where the story is headed, you will most likely start reaching for the hankies. Later, another father talks about the problems his son faced in school. In an effort to deal with his grief, he starts a campaign to bring attention to the problem, which begins to gain more members and public awareness, through social media efforts. Some of these group meetings are shown at the end of the film
All of the stories told are powerful, but the two most predominant narratives really tug at your heart strings. Because the others aren't as powerful, the film feels a bit uneven and less-memorable.
Also, I would really like to have seen the filmmakers tell the story of at least one kid from a big city. All of the subjects featured are from small towns in the Midwest and South. The problem doesn't exist in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago? Presenting a story from a big city, any big city, might have helped to make the film's message that the problem is universal seem more… universal.
"Bully" is not a perfect documentary or the most powerful documentary I have ever seen, but it is very good and presents a message that needs to be seen. Should be seen. Must be seen.
"Bully" is rated 'R' literally because of the F-word. Let's face it. Your kids hear this many times a day on the school yard. Isn't it better that they see a film that might open their eyes to a problem, might help them communicate with you about a problem, might help start a discussion about a problem that seems to be pretty widespread?
I would say "Yes".