by Carl Wilson
I didn’t want to see Bully at first. Immediately when I read about it in the paper, I felt that I could see the whole documentary unspooling in my head, with scenes of micro-brutality and indifferent response that were more than over-familiar, but painfully so. I’m glad the movie exists, along with the whole anti-bullying campaign of recent years (even if I am sometimes a little fatalistically skeptical about how much it can change). Still, I thought, I’ve processed those experiences, don’t want to revisit them, and don’t see any hint that the film has anything unexpected to offer.
Nevertheless, this week a friend persuaded me to go. On one level I guessed right: As cinema, as documentary, this is not highly accomplished. In the final half hour, it descends into PSA territory, as it tours us around rallies held by parents in memory of kids who killed themselves, with the dulling tropes of balloons being released, candles lit, voices supposedly un-silenced – all the modern American mediatized rituals of mourning and “never agains” and the white-on-black number to call in the final frame.
But it turned out to affect me, spending time with these bullied kids and frustrated families – the heartbreakingly brave and funny lesbian teen who is trying to transform her small town singlehandedly until she realizes that’s way too much to ask of herself, her beautiful friends, the parents trying to reach out and feel the shape of this thing and finding it always too small or too big to get hold of and never just right, the “fish faced” geek who I had to admit irritated me the way he irritated his tormenters.
Sitting through the vérité evidence, moment by moment, did provide a sort of therapy – not so much in the sympathy I felt for what the characters were enduring as in the way it had me constantly anticipating how the moments we were seeing would affect the lives ahead of them. Of course the lens through which I was doing that forecasting was my own experience, and so the lens became a mirror, in which I could see the threads tracing back from today to those moments of my own, way back. It was a very vulnerable feeling, but a cathartic and informative one too, a reminder that we never really finish with any parts of our lives – they just land differently in each successive version of our story.
So here’s what I think I learned: Whatever the particulars of the little bundle of dynamite you happen to carry around under your sweater, even a bad movie about it might be worth seeing, perhaps differently so than a bad book. The way the medium plays with duration, suspending it or simply making you watch every minute more closely, affords you a little space to try moving the hands on the timer, even to bring the explosion a few seconds closer, and then to safely rewind it again.