Grade: B

Content makes up for pedestrian style in Lee Hirsch’s documentary, a portrait of youngsters bullied in school that dovetails with the current public outcry over the issue, catalyzed by several high-profile cases that have evoked widespread outrage. The well-publicized controversy over the film’s rating should only increase interest in it.

In cinematic terms “Bully” is as conventional as can be; even the use of small, concealed cameras to capture action secretly—like attacks on a school bus—is hardly novel. But the unexceptional technique, which also involves interviews, fly-on-the-wall footage, archival material and narration, is put to extraordinarily effective use here.

As constructed by Hirsch and his editors Linday Utz and Jenny Golden, the documentary focuses on five victims of bullying—two dead by their own hand, one incarcerated, and two struggling against their tormentors. The boys who committed suicide were 17 and 12, and their stories are told by their grieving parents and friends. They’re depressingly similar, and so is the clueless reactions of authority figures who did little or nothing when they might have intervened and remain defensive about their failure after the fact. Both families have become actively involved in movements to confront bullying and to extract something positive from their loss. But their stories remain wrenching to hear.

A fourteen-year old Mississippi girl is in a juvenile detention facility, charged with a slew of felonies for having brandished her mother’s gun on her school bus after enduring months of taunts and physical threats. Watching her mother and other relatives weep over what happened to her is painful but instructive.

The last two subjects are sixteen-year old Kelby and fourteenth-year old Alex. She’s a lesbian, a talented basketball player forced to leave the team because she’s been ostracized by most of the locals in her small Oklahoma hometown because of her sexual orientation. Her parents are bewildered not by her decision to come out, but by the reaction of former friends who will no longer even speak to them; and eventually they decide that their only option is to move.

Alex is a sweet, shy kid pummeled and insulted because he looks different and can’t socialize easily. It’s in his portion of the narrative that the hidden cameras are especially revealing, capturing the almost incessant punishment inflicted on him during the bus rides. But equally troubling are the scenes recording how the principal sanctimoniously belittles his parents’ complaints in a singularly unproductive session in her office—as well as his father’s encouragement to the sad kid, who’s grown almost inured to the mistreatment, to stand up for himself against his tormentors.

Purely as a piece of cinema, “Bully” may not be all that much. But as a piece of social commentary and a call to action it’s an important document, especially at a point in time when the issues it raises have gained such prominence in the national conversation. It doesn’t delve into the psychological causes of bullying, which can hardly be effectively countered unless they’re analyzed and changed—a matter that, like so many problems, would have to be addressed at home as well as in schools. But it draws affecting portraits of children whom society has failed to protect from abuse at the hands of their peers (as well as school officials, their neighbors and even in some cases their own families), and the parents who suffer alongside them. It’s an emotionally powerful snapshot of the problem that should serve as a valuable catalyst to public discussion of it.