Suck that straw like you suck my dick.
You didn't like that? Neither did I. The difference is that you only have to suffer it here, whereas I heard it every day for years, hurled directly into my face.
The bully who wielded that phrase (I have no idea where he first heard it; I don't think he had the imagination to make it up) and his cronies sat with me at lunch every day at school. Needless to say, I never invited them. I wanted to be alone, I tried to be alone, but they wouldn't leave me alone. The bully would repeat his favorite phrase and any other insulting, obscene thing he could think of, while his buddies busted a gut laughing. If I moved, they moved with me. Anything I said back to them, they threw back in my face, or refused to acknowledge. Because I was one and they were never fewer than three, I couldn't fight them, and anyway the teachers monitoring lunch would have blamed me for starting the fight. I didn't belong to any clique in school, so I couldn't sit with any other kids.
This was far from the only time I had to face bullies during my school days. But it's the one I remember best, if only out of sheer repetition. "Suck that straw like you suck my dick," and the gloating face of the bully who said it, are my most vivid memories of school. That's how it will be, until I die.
I doubt that my childhood memory would have survived the cuts the Motion Picture Association of America forced on Lee Hirsch's Bully to lower its rating from R to PG-13. The language that did survive is certainly bad enough: "I'm going to fucking end you. I'll shove a broomstick up your ass," one bully tells Alex, one of the protagonists of Hirsch's documentary.
Oceans of words have been issued condemning the MPAA for its hypocrisy regarding the language in Bully. No one, I think, has made the point that even with a PG-13 rating Ty Smalley still couldn't have seen the film by himself. As Ty's father, Kirk Smalley, says at one point in the film, Ty will always be 11 years old. That's the age he was when he turned his father's hunting rifle on himself.
Tyler Long, however, was 17 and old enough to see an R-rated movie. It's doubtful that fact was on his mind when he hanged himself. The day after his suicide, the bullies who made his life unbearable came to school wearing nooses around their necks.
Bully is framed by the suicides of Tyler and Ty, and the efforts of their grieving parents to obtain some sort of justice on behalf of their dead children. In between, it tells the stories of three living teenagers: Alex, a 12-year-old boy in Sioux City, Iowa, called "Fish Face" by his classmates because of his full lips, and constantly threatened, beaten and stabbed on his school bus; Kelby, a 16-year-old Oklahoma girl who becomes a pariah, along with her whole family, when she comes out as lesbian; and Ja'Meya, a 14-year-old Mississippi girl facing more than 40 felony counts after she confronts her tormentors with a gun.
Though not a particularly well-made film, Bully is a vitally important one. It is the first film to my knowledge to confront directly the human costs of school bullying. Earlier feature films, such as My Bodyguard, dealt with the theme of bullying, but filmmaking convention didn't allow them to depict the total devastation bullying can inflict on children and their families.
Hirsch makes us grieve for Tyler and Ty, and sympathize deeply with Alex, Kelby and Ja'Meya. We also feel deeply for Kirk Smalley; for David and Tina Long, Tyler's parents; and for Barbara, Ja'Meya's mother, who is in despair that her sweet, loving daughter should be threatened with years in prison for trying to protect herself.
The most frustrating thing Bully depicts, however, is the sheer incomprehension at the phenomenon of bullying. The advantage bullies have always had is that adults tend to see their victims, not them, as the troublemakers. They just can't believe that nice, polite kid in the principal's office—who may be smaller than or not as smart as his accuser—could make the other kid's life so miserable, or say such awful things. They figure the kid who's complaining must have done something to start it, or at least isn't doing enough to stop it.
We see this close-up when an assistant principal in Alex's school makes a bullied kid shake hands with his tormentor, then blames the victim for the entire situation. "You shook his hand but you didn't mean it," she says. "That makes you just like him, doesn't it?"
Meanwhile, Alex's parents lay a guilt trip on him. Because he doesn't fight back, they tell him, he is setting up his little sister to be bullied. (The little sister adds that nobody in school wants anything to do with Alex because he's so creepy.)
Bully ends with a ceremony in which a group of parents, led by Kirk Smalley, releases balloons in honor of their children who killed themselves because of bullying. The film is an earnest and touching plea for the victims of bullying; according to the filmmakers, an estimated 13 million children in America will suffer bullying this year. I hope the film will have the powerful beneficial effect Hirsch wants it to have. Even before Bully was made, many schools established zero-tolerance policies on bullying, which in itself is more hopeful than I could have imagined in my own school days.
(As I write this column, the news has broken that Mitt Romney has apologized for "pranks" he performed in high school. Those pranks included holding down a gay classmate and giving him a forced haircut. Public reaction has been minimal, perhaps because President Obama's endorsement of gay marriage has deflected attention away from Romney. Stay tuned for further developments.)
Le Gamin au Velo (The Kid with a Bike), the latest film by the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, is a harrowing film in its own right, but even more so when considered against Bully. Cyril (Thomas Doret), the film's 11-year-old protagonist, could reasonably be considered a bully or a victim of bullying, depending on which part of The Kid with a Bike you're watching.
With his jug ears and strawberry-blond crew cut, Cyril appears at first glance as normal as Tarte Tatin. It only takes a few seconds, however, to notice the dark circles under his eyes and his permanent, resentful scowl. We first see him literally biting the hand that feeds him—the director of the children's home where Cyril's father (Jeremie Renier) has dumped him. (The whereabouts of Cyril's mother are never revealed.) Cyril keeps fighting the staff and running away, insisting against all evidence that his father is waiting for him at their old apartment. He literally has to be taken to the empty flat and shown that his father has gone, leaving no forwarding address.
During one of his attempted flights, Cyril runs into a doctor's waiting room and wraps himself around the nearest person—a beautician named Samantha (Cecile de France). Samantha takes this surprisingly well: "It's OK if you hug me, only not so tight," she says. It is this hug that makes Samantha take a personal interest in the boy, offering to let him stay with her on weekends and even finding and repurchasing his bike, which Cyril's father had sold.
Samantha finds Cyril no easier to deal with than the children's home staff did. He bites and runs away from her too, and a hellacious trip to an indoor amusement park causes Samantha's boyfriend to demand that she choose between him and Cyril. She chooses Cyril. "Why do you stick with me?" Cyril asks. "I don't know," Samantha replies.
Meanwhile, a neighborhood boy steals Cyril's bike. Cyril chases him, and is led straight into the clutches of Wes (Egon di Mateo), a young thief and drug dealer. Combining the charm of the Artful Dodger with the viciousness of Bill Sikes, Wes is exactly the sort of fast-talking older kid a boy like Cyril would think is cool. What Wes persuades Cyril to do, and its consequences, comprises the latter half of The Kid with a Bike. The action veers toward melodrama, particularly at the very end, but is saved by the Dardennes' rigorous, near-documentary esthetic and the stately music score derived from Beethoven's Emperor Concerto.
Kids in trouble have long been a favorite theme of the Dardennes, and Cyril may be the most memorable of them—particularly because of the remarkable performance by Doret. His portrayal of Cyril is tough and unsentimental, and all the more moving because of that. Cyril is old enough to know what he wants, but too young to know he can't have it, and too obsessed to realize his only chance for salvation is through Samantha. (Cyril's father, when we finally see him, isn't a monster—just a selfish, feckless oaf unworthy of Cyril's devotion.) Emotionally bruised and innately distrustful, Cyril makes us see plainly the gossamer-thin line between being a bully or a victim. The Dardennes, meanwhile, make us see that saving a child from both fates may be a matter of sheer luck—or, if you prefer, God's grace.