For months leading up to its Friday release, the anti-bullying documentary Bully has dominated entertainment headlines due to the rating war between its distributors and the Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA). The MPAA originally saddled the film (watch the trailer below) with an R rating because of a handful of f-words, barring adolescents — "the very demographic that can best be served, educated, informed and ameliorated by the civic values it teaches," says The New York Observer — from seeing the movie. Now Bully is being released without a rating, which will also limit its exposure to teens, since many theaters won't screen unrated films. Too bad, says Richard Corliss at TIME: This film is "as heartbreaking as any Oscar-worthy drama." Do his colleagues agree?
It's devastatingly good: Bully is a "moving, vital, and responsible must-see documentary," says Rex Reed at The New York Observer. It's often devastating; one awkward 12-year-old teased for his "fish face" is ashamed to tell even his parents that he has no friends. The film's depiction of adults' inaction is also infuriating. After a bullied child commits suicide, a school board official shrugs, "Kids will be kids, boys will be boys." Viewers are left to seriously reflect: How have "citizens of the greatest nation of opportunity" allowed this culture of "meanness, violence, cruelty, racism, homophobia, brutality, and hate" to flourish?
"Bully documentary draws on tragic tales of teasing to call out for much-needed attention"
And everyone should see it: Bullying has never been so harrowingly depicted, says Richard Corliss at TIME. The film haunts you long after you leave the theater. After all, if a bully threatens to "f-in' end" a 12-year-old's life when the cameras are rolling, "what sort of hurt does he lay on kids when he's not being filmed?" That's precisely why this ratings idiocy — which will keep kids from seeing the film — is detrimental. Imagine that bully turning 17, finally seeing the film, and thinking, "Oh, I shouldn't have done that when I was a kid. Why didn't someone show me this movie then?"
"Bully: A punishing movie your kids must see"
But it does get slightly ham-handed: Because of the "no-frills observational style" director Lee Hirsch uses to capture these horrific stories, Bully is as "gut-wrenching" as its advance buzz has suggested, says David Fear at Time Out. But as the film shifts toward profiling the Stand for the Silent activist group, it becomes hard to shake "the sneaking suspicion that you've merely been watching an extended PSA" for an anti-bullying advocacy organization. Effective, yes, but still "the artiest infomercial ever."