Back In Time Documentary Review Essay

Later, after this same well-meaning, clueless educator has similarly mishandled a meeting with Alex’s parents — showing them pictures of her grandchildren; chirpily insisting that the bus where Alex has been terrorized is “good as gold” — Alex’s mother says “she politicianed us.”

There is more “politicianing” on display in “Bully” than actual bullying, though Mr. Hirsch’s camera does capture a few horrifying episodes (one of them so alarming that he shared it with parents and school officials). In spite of its title, the film is really about the victims, their parents and the powerful grown-ups who let them down.

A school superintendent in Georgia denies that bullying is a big problem in her district, in spite of the suicide of Tyler Long, a 17-year-old student who took his life after enduring years of harassment and ostracism. A sheriff in Yazoo County, Miss., tallies, with dry, bureaucratic relish, the 45 felony counts faced by Ja’Meya Jackson, a 14-year-old girl who pulled out a gun on a crowded school bus. Nothing can justify such a crime, he says.

That may be true, but his insistence on a narrow, legalistic understanding of Ja’Meya’s case betrays a profound lack of concern about the sustained and systematic abuse that she experienced at the hands of her schoolmates.

It gets worse. In a small town in Oklahoma, Ty Smalley’s suicide left behind loving parents and a devoted best friend, a self-described former bully whose insights are among the most accurate and devastating in the movie.

After Kelby Johnson, a high school student in another part of Oklahoma, came out as a lesbian, she and her family were shunned by neighbors and former friends, and Kelby was taunted by teachers as well as fellow students.

Mr. Hirsch weaves together these stories with compassion and tact, and he wisely refrains from making scapegoats of the bullies who cause Alex, Ja’Meya, Tyler, Ty and Kelby so much pain. “Bully” forces you to confront not the cruelty of specific children — who have their own problems, and their good sides as well — but rather the extent to which that cruelty is embedded in our schools and therefore in our society as a whole.

At times I found myself craving more analysis, a more explicit discussion of how the problem of bullying is connected to the broader issues of homophobia, education and violence in American life. But those issues are embedded in every story the film has to tell. Its primary intent is to stir feelings rather than to construct theories or make arguments, and its primary audience is not middle-aged intellectuals but middle-school students caught in the middle of the crisis it so powerfully illuminates.

But while we are on the subject of adult failures, it should be noted that the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings board, by insisting on an R rating for “Bully,” has made it harder for young audiences to see. The Weinstein Company, which is distributing the film, has released it without a rating after the association denied its appeal and after a widely publicized petition drive was unable to change the board’s mind.

There is a little swearing in the movie, and a lot of upsetting stuff, but while some of it may shock parents, very little of it is likely to surprise their school-age children. Whose sensitivity does the association suppose it is protecting? The answer is nobody’s: That organization, like the panicked educators in the film itself, holds fast to its rigid, myopic policies to preserve its own authority. The members of the ratings board perform a useful function, but this is not the first time they’ve politicianed us.


NYT Critic’s Pick

  • DirectorLee Hirsch

  • WritersCynthia Lowen, Lee Hirsch

  • StarsJa'Meya Jackson, Kelby Johnson, Lona Johnson, Bob Johnson, Alex Libby

  • RatingPG-13

  • Running Time1h 38m

  • GenreDocumentary

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    Last updated: Nov 2, 2017
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On the basis of “Leaning Into the Wind,” when it rains, the British artist Andy Goldsworthy immediately drops to the ground and lets the water outline his body. He describes two ways of approaching the world: “You can walk on the path, or you can walk through the hedge.” It’s almost a given that this documentary about his ephemeral, nature-based art will eventually show him trudging through a hedge, oblivious to or uninterested in the perfectly functional sidewalk next to it.

“Leaning Into the Wind” is a de facto sequel to “Rivers and Tides” (2003), by the same director, Thomas Riedelsheimer. Because time erases or alters Mr. Goldsworthy’s sculptures, movies are the ideal medium to capture them (although with the sequel, the switch from 35-millimeter film to digital cinematography has removed some of the artisanal quality).

The surprise of “Leaning Into the Wind” is that it’s just as concerned with how time has changed Mr. Goldsworthy. His grown daughter Holly now assists him with projects, including one in which they capture the hoof prints of sheep. Mr. Goldsworthy explains the evolution of his views on cities, and his desire to locate the nature beneath them. (Cut to San Francisco, with its wildly uneven sidewalks.)

The title comes from a kind of performance piece in which the artist leans into extremely high cliff winds and doesn’t fall. There’s no warning not to try this at home — which is regrettable, given how many viewers the movie seems poised to captivate with Mr. Goldsworthy’s worldview.

Leaning Into the Wind: Andy Goldsworthy

NYT Critic’s Pick

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  • DirectorThomas Riedelsheimer

  • StarsAndy Goldsworthy, Holly Goldsworthy

  • RatingPG

  • Running Time1h 33m

  • GenreDocumentary

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    Last updated: Mar 10, 2018
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