It’s not unusual to hear stories of “zero tolerance” policies at schools that cause a kid to be punished or even expelled because he included a butter knife in his lunch box or brought an action figure with a tiny toy gun. This is the kind of nanny state overreaction that is typical of our modern society, and it’s the same kind of flawed logic that prevents nail clippers and normal-sized shampoo bottles on airplanes. At best, these kinds of policies simply make it look like someone is trying to do something about the problem while simultaneously showing that they have no idea what the problem actually is.

When Ja’Maya Jackson brought a gun with her on the school bus, it was because she was tired of getting picked on by bigger kids. She was a rather normal-looking honor student who had been the victim of bullying on so many occasions that she just got tired of it. She didn’t shoot anyone, and the time she spent in a juvenile correctional facility was absolutely warranted as a result of her behavior, but had she been able to find help in some other way, perhaps there would have been a better outcome for all involved. She’s certainly not the first to feel the need to bring a gun to school to level the playing field against bigger kids, and some of those cases don’t end so peacefully.

But not all instances of bullying turn out this way. Many, like Alex Libby (a 12-year-old weakling from Sioux City, Iowa), simply take it and bottle up their emotions. Perhaps they try to tell someone about what’s going on, but all too often this doesn’t produce a very satisfying result. It certainly seems like his assistant principal has a very “boys will be boys” attitude and no real understanding of the degree to which Alex is being harassed, or perhaps even a wanton denial of what is painfully obvious to someone after watching only seconds of what he’s subjected to on a daily basis. And as bad as things seem for Alex, he’s at least able to shut himself down emotionally to the degree he’s able to tolerate it. For others, like Tyler Long or Ty Smalley, things got so bad they felt suicide was the only way out.

There are those who say that Bully is the kind of documentary that should be shown in every school. While I agree with that, it’s not for the reasons I expected. It’s hard to believe that anyone who is a bully will watch the film and see the error of his or her ways. And while it may be good for those who are perpetual victims of bullying to see that they’re not alone, but they probably already know that, and that knowledge by itself may not be all that comforting. However, I think that the best targets for this documentary are those in the middle, who aren’t themselves instigators or victims, but who may be swayed toward befriending those who often get bullied, or at least think twice about joining in. But it also seems to demonstrate the complete lack of understanding that some teachers and school administrators have about the severity of the problem, and could perhaps help them understand that it’s not something that’s healthy to ignore.

I found it interesting that all of the cases of bullying that were examined in this film were from relatively small towns. These aren’t inner-city kids from bad neighborhoods, but are from generally rural areas in Iowa, Oklahoma, Georgia, and Mississippi. Some of the schools did have police officers on campus, and some had cameras on the buses, but we didn’t see any metal detectors or overcrowding or violent gangs. I’m not entirely sure whether that always worked to the film’s advantage, since it’s kind of understandable (albeit still completely inexcusable) that “the gay kid” would be picked on in a school where there’s only one or two of them. It seems that had they shown at least once instance of bullying (or its result) in a big school, then people in that kind of environment may be better able to identify with at least that subject of the film.

Although there is apparently a PG-rated version of the film, I believe that the Alamo Drafthouse is showing the unrated cut. If that is indeed the case, it’s downright revolting that the MPAA ratings board threatened to give it an “R” classification for language. The only “bad word” I remember hearing in the film was “faggot”, but that was in the context of a kid telling someone else what he was called — we don’t even hear him called that. It’s merely used in a statement of fact, and seems like it would fit under the same umbrella as indigenous nudity as seen in films depicting African tribes. If the only reason you’re hesitant about seeing (or letting your kids see) the film is concern about it being unrated, you can rest assured that its content is far more tame than what you’ll see in The Hunger Games or Titanic 3D.