AND THEN THERE’S ME
If the film has a main star, it’s Alex. He’s featured most prominently and his story begins immediately after the opening credits. The opening number is brilliant. As a bus rolls to school, you hear children’s voices sing an arrangement of “Teenage Dirtbag. The bus in this film is a torture chamber. For 12-year-old Alex, in Sioux City, Iowa, that’s not a hyperbolic description.
The first thing you notice about Alex is that he’s not a cute kid. He’s in junior high and just by looking at him, you know. You think, “That kid is really going to be picked on in school.” What this movie does so well, however, is that it shows you the world from Alex’s point of view, what it’s like to be that kid who is picked on at the level of abuse he endures.
Alex tells us he feels good when he’s in his house and with his family. He introduces us to his family, his four younger siblings and Mom and Dad. He introduces himself last and when he says, “and then there’s me.” His voice drops as if he is so ashamed he can barely add himself to his own narrative.
He’s going to back to school. The camera follows him as he waits for the bus. The dreaded bus. You can hear his labored, terrified breathing as he approaches the other boys waiting at the stop, who are already sparring with each other and swearing. When Alex approaches they start to watch something on a smart phone and Alex moves over to see it too. One says, “Don’t even think about watching. I’ll kick the crap out of you, I’ll break your Adam’s apple.”
“Oh okay,” Alex says.
The boy, predictably, says, “I’m not your buddy.” Then adds, “I’ll fucking shove a broomstick up your ass…I’ll cut your face off.”
Alex laughs, as he tries desperately not to offend, and you hear another “Oh okay.” The other boy says, “You know what I’m saying?” and Alex answers, “Yeah, I know what you are saying” not realizing that “You know what I’m saying?” is usually asked rhetorically.
Alex is socially awkward, to say the least.
ADULTS IN OVER THEIR HEADS
I don’t have children. I don’t know what it’s like to be a parent in this situation, so I’m hesitatant to criticize these parents except to state the obvious. When they had children, they were not prepared to raise a kid like Alex. They love him and they’re trying their best, but the camera shows us more of Alex’s life than any parent get to see. Alex’s parents aren’t aware of the level of abuse he suffers because he won’t tell them, but when he tells them, his dad tells Alex that he shouldn’t put up with it. Really , Dad?
The adults who deserve criticism, however, assuming the film is accurately portraying them, are the administrators. When Alex gets to school, the assistant principal is standing in the hallway doing what assistant principals do. Her first statement in the movie is “The fog must’ve slowed everybody down.” She’s already offering excuses for errant behavior, a pattern you’ll notice she repeats throughout the movie. If the movie has a villain, it’s her. When one student complains of being hit with something, the AP looks at his head and says, “Well I don’t see any hole.” She asks, “I bet you didn’t like that at all.” When a boy is walking by, she says to the camera, “He’s always such an unhappy looking child.”
The AP talks to a crying boy named Cody. “He calls me a faggot,” Cody says. She asks, “How does that make you feel?”
Cody sobs and says, “It breaks my heart.”
“It breaks your heart. So what do you think we should do?” she asks Cody. After Cody leaves, the AP says to the camera, “Tell me how to fix this? I don’t know. I don’t have any magic.”
In another scene, the AP talks to two boys. She’s trying to get them to shake hands. One kid, apparent to all of us as the bully, heartily extends his hand. The little shit knows he’s gotten away with something because the dimwitted AP is treating his harrassment of the other kid as just two boys who don’t get along. Cole, the boy who has suffered the harrassment, is rightly indignant, and refuses to shake hands. “He is offering his hand, and let this drop,” says the AP. “Cole. I expected more.” A crying Cole complains that the boy criticizes him every single day. “Then why are you around him?” asks the AP. Cole tells her he’s not, the other boys comes to him. “He follows me,” Cole says. “Calls me a p-u-s-s-y.” “Honey,” the AP says, “That’s not right and he shouldn’t do that, but he was trying to say he was sorry. You didn’t mean it when you shook his hand, so that means you’re just like him.” At this point, I feared the audience in the theater was going to assault the screen. (NOTE to AP – Do NOT go see this movie, or wear a good disguise if you do.) “By not shaking his hand, you’re just like him.” Cole talks about the threats, the abuse. “Can you try to get along? I think you guys could be really good friends,” says the AP. “We were,” says Cole, “until he started bullying.”
That’s the primary theme of the movie. We want to blame the hapless in-over-their-head administrators and teachers and they certainly deserve a lot of it. But what is the AP supposed to do? Realize she is incompetent and voluntarily quit her job? People just don’t do that. And if she did, who is going to replace her? Will that person have any magic?
You’ll see Alex’s mom encouraging him to tell her what’s going on. He won’t tell her; his mom admits he doesn’t share a whole lot. She tells Alex “next time I’ll get the whole story, okay?” You learn what’s wrong with Alex. He was born at 26 weeks, a far cry from the 40 weeks of normal human gestation. He wasn’t supposed to live 24 hours but now it’s 13 years later.
Alex’s mom plays some home videos of Alex as a baby. It’s cute stuff, he dances in time to a song. He’s a normal happy kid, until he gets to school. That’s when the differences emerge. Back at the middle school, students are giving speeches prior to a student body election. The message is clear: Alex will never be student body president anywhere. Which raises a legitimate question about this film: what’s the difference between not being popular, or even liked at all, and being bullied? We can’t force kids to like each other but where is the line? Is simply ignoring a child ever bullying? Probably not; I can’t think of any situation. But bullying doesn’t have to be physical to be bullying. “Words may never hurt me” is a ridiculous saying because words hurt all the time.
Back at Alex’s house he and his had have a conversation. His dad asks about his day.
“This high schooler was strangling me,” Alex says, “but I think he was just messing around. He calls me the ‘B’ word… He says I’m his ‘B’ word.”
“That’s not just messing around,” Dad says. “Who knows? Next year, this high school kid, instead of picking on you, is gonna then pick on your little sister. And what are you going to do about it? Because you’re her big brother.” Gee thanks, Dad, like Alex doesn’t already feel bad enough about himself, you have to lay THAT guilt trip on him. “You can’t let this stuff go on,” Dad adds, although he doesn’t specify what exactly Alex is supposed to do to prevent “this stuff” from going on. “People will start seeing you as a punching bag. Nobody respects a punching bag.”
This is when it becomes clear that the movie producers haven’t been telling Alex’s parents what’s been taking place. Don’t worry; they’re about to.
HER LITTLE CHERUBS
“These are my special little cherubs that get on these buses every day. These are the ones who pray get home safely every night,” says the AP at the end of the school day. Then you see the little “cherubs” stabbing Alex with a pencil while others shout “Give it to him hard!”
The director tells Alex’s parents what’s been going on. “I never would’ve guessed in a million years it was that bad.” Alex’s parents express some anger that he hasn’t told them how he has been punched, kicked and stabbed. “Do these things make you feel good?” asks Alex’s mom.
“I’m starting to think I don’t feel anything anymore,” says twelve-year-old Alex. “If you say these people aren’t my friends, what friends do I have?”
The film doesn’t say it but at this point the though that went through my mind was, “Fix this, people, or Alex is the next Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.” It’s a terrible thought, because Alex is such a sweet, if eccentric, kid. But then so were Harris and Klebold at one time.
AS GOOD AS GOLD
Alex’s parents go in to see the Assistant Principal. His mom says she is so upset, she doesn’t want him to ride the bus anymore. “They’re stabbing him with pencilS, and choking him….”
“Buses are notoriously bad places for lots of kids,” says the AP. (a rousing chorus of “oh my God” goes up in the theater). “I wish I could make it stop, but I’m not going to lie to you. I can’t. But what we can do is get him on another bus. … I’ve ridden [bus] 54. I’ve been on that route. I’ve been on a couple of ’em. They are just as good as gold.”
That comment drew the largest reaction of the night. I’ll say it again, Ms. Assistant Principal, do NOT see this movie without a really good disguise. Or you might learn the hard way what bullying is about. “This is my granddaughter and her new baby brother,” the AP says to Alex’s parents as she inexplicably shows them her family photograph. “This is totally wrong. You’ll just have to trust me that we’ll take care of that other child and we’re really glad that you came again. I’m sorry about this, but we’ll take care of it.”
“That’s what she said in the fall,” says Alex’s mom outside. “She politician’d us. She’s not going to do a thing.”
To the administrators’ credit, they do call in the boys who’ve been abusing Alex. We see them questioned. “Have you ever hit him?” asks another administrator. “Yes I have,” says the boy. “He really made me mad.” The administator says that if he hits Alex again he will be talking to a police officer.
“Kind of sucks that it’s Mothers’ Day. I don’t feel like a very good mother. Alex, he just can’t fit in, he tries, he just comes across as so weird. What ticks me off is that if they got to know him, he’d come across as the most devoted friend they ever had.”
The dad says he should come home and tell them every time this happens but the mom finally states the obvious. “The only thing worse than getting beat up and crying about it is having to come home and tell you about it. He never sees you cry. He wants to be just like you.”
“He’s not around when I cry,” the dad says.
“Well how about next time he comes in I hit you and make you cry,” the mom says in a touching moment that adds some much-needed levity.
“I don’t believe in luck,” says Alex, “but I believe in hope.” In the final scenes of the films, Alex looks at the year book, pointing to all the girls he thinks are cute. You realize that despite his weird personality and unusual looks, he’s like other kids his age.
Check back tomorrow and Friday for parts four and five. You can watch a trailer of the movie “Bully” here.