For a film that understandably only scratches the surface of its topic, "Bully" carries a devastating emotional punch. A powerful examination of aggressive behavior in American schools -- much of it unchecked by administrators, law enforcement, parents or any adult in authority -- the movie focuses on a handful of families affected by bullying, some to a devastating extent. The film will leave you spent, disturbed and sorrowful -- and all too aware of ugly truths about human tendencies.
But buckle up. With its desired rating now official -- the MPAA ordered an R at first but has since acquiesced to PG-13 -- "Bully" is mandatory viewing for kids, parents, teachers, administrators, school liaison officers -- anyone connected with education as well as anyone who believes today's kids are just too coddled.
Hirsch, known for the anti-apartheid documentary "Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony," chose families in Oklahoma, Mississippi, Georgia and Iowa for the project.
He opens the film with David Long, a Murray County, Ga., father with a haunted air, talking about his son Tyler, who had a form of Asperger's syndrome and suffered years of teasing at school -- until he hanged himself in a closet at 17.
From there, Hirsch introduces us to other kids, notably 12-year-old Alex from Sioux City, Iowa. Alex also has Asperger's and endures physical and psychological torture aboard his school bus. Other kids threaten to kill him, stab him with pencils. Alex, though, doesn't let on to his parents what's happening.
As probing as it is, "Bully" raises disquieting questions it doesn't attempt to answer.
There's no way to come up with solid conclusions in one small documentary. But at least Hirsch, who tries hard to end on a hopeful note, has insisted on a vital discussion.
* Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes.
* Rating: PG-13 for language.
Tyler, David and Tina Long
In October 2009, 17-year-old Tyler Long of Murray County, Ga., hanged himself. In this documentary, David and Tina Long mourn the loss of their son, demand accountability from the school they feel failed him and force the community to face its bullying demons.