Once upon a time, Harvey Weinstein, the unofficial king of independent film distribution, wanted to release a movie that shined a light on the harsh reality of teenagers' lives. But the harshness of that reality found him running afoul of the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings board, which wouldn't give Weinstein his desired rating unless he made a number of changes. Weinstein refused, instead using the ratings controversy to bring attention to his film, which got a ton of free publicity over the squabble.
The film was Kids, director Larry Clark's superb 1995 portrait of a group of hedonistic New York teens engaging in gleeful bouts of drinking, drugging, and unprotected sex. The ratings board slapped it with an NC-17, but because Weinstein's Miramax was at that time over at Disney—which wouldn't release an NC-17 film—he formed a side company, Shining Excalibur Pictures, and released it unrated. A divisive and unsettling film, Kids was intentionally confrontational but skillfully made. Even if the kids of Kids weren't indicative of the nation's youth as a whole, it was an authentic, gripping vision—one that the MPAA's restrictive NC-17 would have killed before mature, discerning audiences could have had much of a chance to see it.
Seventeen years later, Weinstein would seem to be in a similar situation with another movie about the dark side of teen life. It's a documentary called Bully that comes out on Friday, and it looks at some young people between the ages of 12 and 16 who are being harassed by classmates because they're socially awkward or gay or simply different. The film, directed by Lee Hirsch, was given an R by the ratings board because of its frank language, and Weinstein has been fighting for over a month to get that overturned, wanting a PG-13 rating because otherwise, as a press release explained back in February, the film "could not be screened in U.S. middle and high schools, where it might otherwise reach a mass national audience of students and be used as a tool to stop an epidemic of physical, psychological and emotional violence."
That's a nice sentiment, and it's received support from everyone from Johnny Depp to Drew Brees, who all petitioned the ratings board to change its mind. But yesterday, the board announced that it wouldn't, which prompted Weinstein to announce that he'll release Bully unrated, a move that allows theaters to decide for themselves if underage viewers can see the film without parental supervision.
Quite cunningly, Weinstein has turned Bully into a cause. Not a cause related to the problems of bullying, mind you—a cause related to the problems with the ratings board. Which is pretty ridiculous.
Of late, Weinstein has battled with the board a few times. In 2010, he rightly argued that Blue Valentine's brief oral sex scene didn't warrant an NC-17. He won that one, although he lost the same year when he tried to convince the board that The King's Speech shouldn't be given an R. The reason why the genteel Oscar-winning film got that rating was for a scene in which the stuttering king (played by Colin Firth) lets fly with a volley of colorful epithets to help his speech problems. Weinstein's attitude in that case basically boiled down to, "Hey, I know there are curse words in my movie, but, c'mon, my movie's artistic—they're not really cursing."
That's the same attitude he's adopted with Bully—the rules don't apply to him because he's making an Important Movie and kids need to see it. I don't know. I've seen Bully. It seems like an R-rated movie to me. The swearing isn't prevalent, but it's in there. If this were a teen romantic drama or a buddy comedy, the same amount of swearing would get you an R. The MPAA ratings board is a flawed system in so many ways—a lot of violence can still get you a PG-13, but just a little swearing or nudity automatically puts you at an R—but what annoys me about Weinstein's grandstanding is that he thinks he deserves an exception to the rules that are already laid out. With Blue Valentine, the rating seemed extreme for a very minor bit of sexual activity. But with Bully, sorry, that rating seems right on the money.
Maybe I'd be more sympathetic to Weinstein's plight if his argument weren't so wrongheaded. Back in February, here was his reasoning for seeking a PG-13:
As a father of four, I worry every day about bullying; it's a serious and ever-present concern for me and my family. I want every child, parent, and educator in America to see Bully, so it is imperative for us to gain a PG-13 rating. It's better that children see bad language than bad behavior, so my wish is that the MPAA considers the importance of this matter as we make this appeal.
OK, fair enough, but here's the problem: Bully isn't for kids. It's for their parents. In this way, and this way only, it's a little like Kids—both are movies about teenagers that are in fact aimed at adults, whom the filmmakers want to shake out of their comfortable, middle-class assumptions about what safe, wholesome lives their children lead. While watching Bully, I couldn't understand for the life of me why a teenager would want to see it. Maybe some picked-on kids would realize they're not alone—which would be a valuable thing—but with grassroots campaigns like It Gets Better publicizing the dangers facing bullied LGBT youths, it's not as if tormented teens aren't in the public eye at all. Honestly, Bully feels like a movie parents should be watching to get an inside look at what school can be like for bullied kids. And if parents are old enough for an R-rated movie—or at least able to bring their kids to the movie—what's Weinstein's problem?
Also irritating is how Weinstein hides behind the "importance" of his film. The artistic or moral merit of a movie shouldn't have any bearing on its MPAA rating. But if he wants to keep pushing the "importance," angle, I feel compelled to point out that Bully is not a particularly great film. Like too many documentaries these days it follows the same trajectory: (1) Introduce a big problem; (2) show how widespread it is; and then (3) quickly build to a predictable third-act finale that's meant to be inspirational and leave the audience with a website they can visit to do more. I'm not questioning the sincerity of the filmmakers' intentions, just their uninspired execution. Basically, Bully's argument is that bullies are bad, and that someone needs to do something about it. There is no nuance, no lower layer. The documentary doesn't bother dissecting the psychology of aggressive behavior or even acknowledging that policing such activity might be incredibly difficult, not to say—perhaps—a form of bullying in its own right. Bully, though it means well, only scratches the surface.
I bring all this up because I'm genuinely sorry that Bully is going to be held up as some sort of poster child for the inconsistencies of the ratings board. A lot of fuss will be made over a movie with good intentions that's really lacking in other ways. All of Weinstein's carnival barking just means that more people will leave the theater saying, "That's it?" We should know by now that Weinstein will pimp his movies by any method at hand, but what happens when he makes a message movie whose hype overtakes the message? Ginning up a ratings controversy merely ensures that the message gets lost. All anyone will remember of the film is that Harvey Weinstein spent a few news cycles frantically waving his arms about ... something. That does both his movie and its cause a disservice, which is much more offensive than anything in an NC-17 film.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.