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Features: Alex, Kelby, Ja’Meya, Kirk and Laura Smalley, David and Tina Long.
Writers: Lee Hirsch and Cynthia Owen.
Director: Lee Hirsch.

MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL Screenings - Fri 10 Aug, 11.00am; Sun 12 Aug, 1.30pm; Tue 14 Aug, 11.00am. National release via Village Roadshow commences Thur 23 Aug.

Rating: 4.5/5

The lives of disenfranchised youths dip painfully in and out of focus via the camera of director Lee Hirsch in Bully and the result is an achingly sad, occasionally soaring work.

An in-camera effect the director employs quite deliberately, of the image shifting from crisp to blurry, captures the dichotomy of existence a group of children in the early stages of teenhood experience. For many of them, their idyllic home life where they are able to be express their untainted love for life is the only refuge they have from a world of torment.

A pre-credit sequence that puts the tortuous duality of the victimised life into perspective chronicles the fate of Tyler Long. He was a bright, beautiful boy from a loving family who, having suffered untold torment in secondary school, hung himself in his bedroom closet. His father reflects upon the baby boy he has lost; his mother recounts for Hirsch’s camera the moment they found him.

It is a forthright challenging way to start a film, but it puts its audience on note that what you about to see has consequence, is about the life and death of children. We soon meet Kelby, a strong, pretty girl whose coming-out leads to social pariah status; learn of 12 year-old Ty Smalley, another suicide victim driven to a desperate act by evil older children; and, suffer through the fate of Ja’Meya, a Mississippi teen whose last-resort act of brandishing a gun on a school bus leads to a period in mental health detention. 

The saddest/sweetest victim is Alex, his awkward appearance, vacant stare and gangly physicality making him easy prey. His efforts to attach himself to schoolyard cliques leads to beatings, while every bus trip is filled with abuse. An early scene in which he lovingly wrestles with his younger sister comes back to haunt him (and the audience), when it is revealed she is teased just for being his sister; when he tries to make sense of why who he is should impact her, she says “Because people think you’re weird”. His heartbreak filled the preview screening room that SCREEN-SPACE attended.

To the film’s slight detriment, Bully has a narrow focus set against America’s Midwest Bible-belt region; I found myself wanting to know what a bullied child’s life is like in the multicultural volatility of Los Angeles or the prep-school elite of the US East Coast. The communities in focus still deal with problems by organising town hall meetings and plonking brutal advocates of bullying in the vice-principal’s office. Villains emerge in the form of paper-pushing line-towers, in particular Alex’s student superviser, Ann Lockwood, her smug grin a cover for a sanctimonious career ass-coverer who refuses to consider measures to protect the victims.

The bullies are occasionally asked to answer for their actions, but one senses Hirsch understands his film is not a turning point but a call to arms; he overplays the modern documentary trait to fill the final half-hour with website prompts and movement preaching, but one can hardly blame him given the closeness he obviously shared with his subjects.

Frankly, these are minor shortcomings that merely point to a passionate factual-filmmaker getting somewhat over-enthused in his feature length debut. Having been deeply moved by Bully, it is hard to imagine any critic begrudging the technically-proficient Hirsch the lengths to which he goes to tell the sad, spiritual stories he has uncovered. Ideally, it should lead to a cross-country wave of like-minded projects, exposing the evil that dwells in our children’s places of learning.

Director Lee Hirsch will be joined by anti-bullying advocate Ruby Rose, headspace youth ambassador Joe Pellucci, Project Rockit representative Rosie Thomas, SANE's Jack Heath and Dr Judith Slocombe from The Alannah and Madeline Foundation at the MIFF Special Presentation "Bully: Screen to Schoolyard" on Tuesday, August 14 at the Forum Theatre's Festival Lounge.

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