The words are awful, and they hurt. But the words spoken by one young teenager in particular in the new documentary “Bully” actually hurt less than the letter — R — that the Motion Picture Association of America initially slapped on the film itself.
Late Thursday, with three instances of the F-word removed from the release print, the film received a PG-13 from the MPAA ratings board. Both sides claimed victory, or at least reasonable compromise.
Already in limited release in New York and Los Angeles, director Lee Hirsch’s “Bully” opens next week in Chicago and other markets. The original R rating was dead wrong. The Weinstein Company, the distributor of “Bully,” was right to fight this one. Whatever its limitations, this is a film that might actively improve the lives of countless teenagers, both the bullies and the bullied. It shows what too many school kids experience, all the time, without a lot of fuss or artifice. The brief but venal language spoken in “Bully” is essential to our understanding of the lives on screen.
Hirsch’s documentary weaves together stories, often wrenching, of several far-flung American kids, gay and straight.
One of them is Alex Libby of Sioux City, Iowa. What we watch Alex endure on the school bus and elsewhere in “Bully” is enough to make you scream. The verbal and physical abuse he puts up with, and what his school administrators so blithely underplay, breaks your heart and boils your blood.
The film subjects audiences to some harsh language, spoken, casually, by one of Alex’s tormentors in particular.
In the producers’ original cut of “Bully,” the F-word was uttered either six or seven times (accounts differ), which was enough for the MPAA’s R rating, even on appeal.
But the controversy proved effective in helping the PG-13 re-rating happen. All it took was three F’s, and they were, I suppose, a small (if silly) price to pay for a wider audience.
(Weinstein was opting to send the film out unrated, instead of R-rated, which means some movie theater chains weren’t going to touch it. There was, however, some dissent and free thinking in the ranks: Regal, AMC and Carmike Cinemas — the country’s No. 1, 2 and 4 theater chains by size, as Patrick Goldstein noted in the Los Angeles Times this week — were booking the film.)
Canada always thought otherwise. The film is going out with a PG rating there. Weinstein has been down this road before. “The King’s Speech” (17 F’s, spoken in a flurry by Oscar-winning Colin Firth) is my vote for the R-rated film least deserving of an R rating. That, too, was a Weinstein release.
Is the MPAA consistent and clinically “objective” when it comes to its ratings decisions? No, it is not. Nor should it be. But the MPAA ratings board, currently headed by Joan Graves, has made one too many bad calls in recent years. It’s time for this hapless crew to lead, not follow the perceived prejudices of its millions of constituents.
It’s time for the MPAA to re-examine how often, and why, they’re lenient on violence in PG- and PG-13-rated films, especially those financed by the major studios that fund the MPAA’s existence, and so nervous when it comes to language and sexuality.
Graves paints the issue as an irreconcilable mismatch of big-city versus small-town values. So here I am in Gomorrah, i.e., Chicago.
When a film like “The King’s Speech” or “Once” or “Bully” gets nailed with an R for some rough language, I look at some of the viscera- and sadism-oriented products also rated R, and I shake my head and think, briefly, about moving to Canada, or England, or any number of other, saner parts of the world.
Graves has said in interviews that the people have spoken, and for much of her Southern and Midwestern citizens, there’s nothing worse than bad language, blasphemous or otherwise. Not a “Saw,” not a “Hostel,” nothing.
End of story.
Here the issue grows thick with complication and contradiction and, ultimately, hypocrisy. In 2006, a limited-release documentary called “The Hip Hop Project” received a PG-13 rating. According to the filmmakers and other sources the F-word was heard 17 times in that picture, the same number as in “The King’s Speech.” The PG-13-rated Iraq War documentary “Gunner Palace” (2005)? Forty-two times, according to the film’s producers.
Go back three decades. A big-budget mainstream studio picture, “All the President’s Men,” released in 1976, went out into the world with a PG, its seven F-words notwithstanding.
On the MPAA blog a few weeks back, when the “Bully” controversy was stewing, Graves wrote: “The R rating is not a judgment on the value of any movie. The rating simply conveys to parents that a film has elements strong enough to require careful consideration before allowing their children to view it.”
Fair enough. And yet she’s ducking the question of whether the ratings board was conveying the right message to parents regarding “Bully” by slapping it, initially, with an R.
“Language matters,” director Hirsch told one interviewer. “(Victims of bullying) are constantly having their stories minimized. Sort of like, ‘Oh, it’s not so bad.’ Having been bullied, I can relate to that. A big piece of this film was to kill that argument, to show that it is bad, it’s mean, it’s scary and it’s serious, so serious that kids are being driven to suicide.”
The brief, bruising language heard in “Bully” is used in a legitimate context and manner. Therefore the MPAA never had any business sticking “Bully” with an R rating.
Having seen an early screening this week, I can tell you this much: It’s worthwhile. And it should’ve received a PG-13 rating from the first.
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