When Tyler Long, a 17-year-old high-school student from Murray County, Ga., found himself being verbally abused by his classmates, he did what most teenagers would do: He tried to ignore them, then went to his teachers. But when Long's complaints fell on deaf ears, he made a tragic decision: He wrote a suicide note and hanged himself in his bedroom.
Long's story is one of several eye-opening tales in "Bully," a documentary about intimidated teens that seeks to do for child bullying what "An Inconvenient Truth" did for global warming. Although the film doesn't reach theaters until March 30, it has already kickstarted a national movement of sorts.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rep. Mike Honda (D-San Jose) have touted its importance. A Michigan teenager unaffiliated with the film has started a petition in favor of a more lenient rating from the Motion Picture Assn. of America -- it was given an R for profane language -- and has gathered nearly 200,000 signatures to date.
"Bully" is also set to roll out in a series of screenings at schools around the country. At the first of those, for students at Fairfax High School last month, a tense showdown occurred when a sobbing student confronted her alleged bullies in the theater after the screening ended.
"I think it's a shame that some people haven't reached the emotional maturity level" to handle this, said the ninth-grader, crying as she turned to face a few students behind her, whom she said had been harassing her for months.
The Weinstein Co. acquired the documentary, then called "The Bully Project," after its Tribeca Film Festival premiere last year. The movie is an unlikely cause celebre for the studio. Unlike glossy prestige pictures such as "The Artist" or "The King's Speech," "Bully" is a no-frills collection of stories about everyday people aimed at raising awareness, not angling for Oscars.
"I have four daughters, and this is a movie about making the world better for them," Harvey Weinstein explained.
The stories should make parents take notice, at least. Crisscrossing from Georgia to Iowa to Oklahoma to Texas, director Lee Hirsch, who was bullied himself as a teenager, finds several kids who have been bullied and snapped. He also tells the stories of several others who've turned the pain inward, and spends time with two fathers whose children killed themselves as a result of bullying.
A particular focus is Alex Libby, a gentle 14-year-old from Edmond, Okla., who maintains a sweet disposition even after he is subjected to wince-inducing physical and verbal assaults. His parents seem to be trying to help him avoid the tragedy that befell Long, but even they don't realize how bad things are for their son until Hirsch shares some footage he recorded of the teen being threatened on a school bus.
Best known for a series of campaign spots for Barack Obama, Hirsch, 39, decided to make the film after hearing of several high-profile cases of bullied kids who reached a breaking point, and then flashing back to the bullying he endured as an adolescent, which he said was both physical and verbal. Believing the problem has become worse with the rise of social media -- which ensures that the antagonizing can reach more people, and faster -- Hirsch enlisted several foundations to help him finance a documentary.
The finished product offers a harrowing portrait of the way children interact and an indictment of teachers who look the other way or pooh-pooh the problem. But whether his film can effect social change remains to be seen. Honda, who spent 30 years as a teacher and principal, said that his experience convinced him of the importance of the film.
"Youngsters who commit suicide or bring weapons are the most extreme cases," he said. "But there are a lot of kids who get fed up and there's no trusted adult for them to go to. A movie like 'Bully' can help change that."
But even he acknowledged that the movie was, at best, a starting point. "It has to happen with dialogue in every community, not just a film," he said.
Hirsch said he realizes that a documentary is no match for the brutal ways teenagers treat one another. But he said he remained optimistic that his film could save lives.
"All fights are tough," he said. "I believe we could be the generation that puts [bullying] in the ground," citing a screening a few days ago at a film festival in Columbia, Mo., that drew more than 1,500 people and a 10-minute standing ovation.
The director also said he had been moved by Weinstein, who had "tears in his eyes" when he emerged from an appeals meeting at the MPAA, where he was trying to have the rating changed to PG-13. Libby also spoke at the appeal, which was denied.
Not that the company hasn't been making marketing hay of the ratings controversy.
After they got wind of the petition campaign by Katy Butler -- the Michigan teenager who became an activist after bullies broke her finger -- the Weinstein Co. kicked its publicity efforts into gear. It sent out press releases playing up her campaign and rounded up a quote from Jackson.
" 'Bully' is a movie that depicts the nightmare that some kids face every day," Jackson said. Bullying "drives individuals to suicide and even retaliation. Children are afraid to go to school and therefore their educational productivity decreases."
Honda sent a letter on Friday to MPAA chief Chris Dodd asking him to revise the rating. (An MPAA spokesman said Monday that the group would be open to a re-edit of the movie, but "there is no provision for changing the rules" to reduce it to a PG-13 because of letters or petitions. Hirsch and Weinstein have said they want to show the language as it was spoken and will not edit four-letter words out of the film.)
Stephen Bruno, the Weinstein Co.'s president of marketing, acknowledged that viral petitions offer free publicity for the film with its target audience. But he said that, contrary to what skeptics might say, very little of it has been orchestrated by Weinstein.
"We woke up to a lot of this. It really is organic," he said, adding, "This is out there. We can't corral or harness it. What we can do is ride it."
Hirsch said he believed young people have sparked to the movie because of its message of standing up to bullies, not because of any marketing gimmick. "We're not trying to tell people how to feel," he said. "There are just thousands of teenagers out there who saw the trailer and said, 'This is our narrative.' "