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There is a lot that can and should be said about bullying — that it started with the cavemen, that it runs in the family, that it's promoted by the media — but none of those things are said by the well-meaning documentary "Bully." Although these profiles of some bullied students and activist parents are poignant, the movie is a missed opportunity to examine causes and cures for a social epidemic.

A press release for the film says that 13 million American kids are the victims of classroom and Internet bullying each year, but director Lee Hirsch limits his focus to a few rural teenagers who are pestered at school. Because we don't witness much actual bullying for the first hour of the movie, we have to use our imaginations or extrapolate from school-bus teasing that seems rather routine.

The best-documented victim is Eric from Iowa, who was born prematurely and grew gawky and shy. Neither his parents nor the school administrators take his timid complaints seriously until the filmmakers alert them. Yet the grown-ups peddle platitudes. And even the four sympathetic parents who organize anti-bullying rallies in memory of their two sons who committed suicide can only suggest that we be nice to outcasts and 'stand up for the silent."

Maybe a grass-roots movement can raise consciousness, the way it's done with drunken driving; yet in American culture, the prevailing counter-argument to Christian compassion is the macho ideal of standing up to perceived adversaries like a gun-toting hero.

Although one of the students in the film is an African-American girl from Mississippi who is arrested for pointing a pistol at her alleged tormentors, the movie otherwise sidesteps the connection between bullying and violent reprisals. And despite the title, we don't meet any actual bullies, let alone understand them.

"Bully" is a good start to a necessary conversation, but its loving voice is likely to be drowned out by haters who hide their own wounded hearts behind Internet pseudonyms and broadcast microphones.


Two and a half stars (out of four) • Rating PG-13 • Run time 1:39 • Content Strong language and mature themes • Where Plaza Frontenac