I saw Bully on the weekend and in the first five minutes I found myself watching the shaky camera and messy focus wondering if I was going to be able to get past that and watch the film at all.
But around the eight-minute mark, the filmmakers punched me in the face. It wasn’t with foul language, or violence, or the death of a child. It was with a 12-year-old boy with blonde hair and blue eyes called Cody who was called out of class by the principal and taken into an empty classroom.
The principal asked him what the other boys call him and he responded, nervously rubbing his hands on his knees, fingernails bitten down to the skin. “They call me ‘fag’,” he tells her. The Principal then questions him again – “and how does that make you feel?” At this point, that bright eyed young kid looks up at her, right in the eyes and replies: “it breaks my heart.”
The technical failings blur into the background after that, largely because I was satisfied and simultaneously gutted that this moment had been caught on film. A 12-year-old boy should never have to say something breaks their heart, but there he was sitting there and saying it with enough conviction to make you realise it was the truth.
“It was like watching my own childhood story on repeat.”
The film has a lot of emotionally raw and stirring moments like that. A lot of the time it was like watching my own childhood story on repeat as I tried to hold myself together. When the parents of one of these kids goes into the school to try to complain, they get the plastic smile and “we’ll take care of it” from the principal which chillingly reminded me of what my school did to respond to my parents complaining when I was 14.
The Head of Year asked for a list of names and what people were doing. I gave them that list of names and one day found myself being called out of a class and taken into a room with the 15 bullies I’d named. I was then put “on the stand,” so to speak, and asked to describe what these people had done. They either burst into tears or denied they had ever done any of it. I was so angry that I’d been put in that position that I just stopped talking, I literally refused to reply to the Head of Year. That would have been the day I went home and killed myself.
I wrote two suicide letters in High School and I often wonder what stopped me, why I didn’t do it. I think it was hope – I had a dream of what I was going to be after High School. So when I went home that day after they’d made me feel like the bad person for trying to make it all stop, I decided nobody was going to help, but that didn’t mean I was going to give up. That was the day I stopped caring about school or being popular or following the crowd or any of that bullshit. In the long run, it means nothing, the only person you should try and please is yourself.
In Bully, they follow misfit kid Alex who is getting bullied. He says at one point: “I don’t believe in luck, but I do believe in hope” and he hit the nail on the head. I personally believe that hope is key. Hope stops you giving up, hope for something beyond what you’re going through.
Hope is picking up someone’s books in the hallway after they get knocked out of their hand instead of just walking by. Hope is going up to someone after seeing them get their head slammed in a locker and asking, “are you okay?” Hope is looking past the risk of getting picked on yourself and making friends with that person so that they won’t give up. Hope is just smiling and saying “hi” to someone so they don’t feel invisible. Hope is making someone feel noticed, that they matter.
Hope is often very hard to find, but it’s an easy thing for others to give. My hope is that Bully not only gets shown in schools but that it gets studied in them. It’s not a slick filmmaking masterpiece, but it is real people and real stories that showcase the spectrum of bullying and that’s where the real power in it lies.
Bully will be released in selected cinemas across Australia on Thursday 23 August.