In the Hunger Games, children kill other children because a tyrannous government orders them to do so in a grotesque TV spectacle. In Bully, children torment other children because, as one official tells parents at a town hearing, "kids will be kids." The first movie is dystopian fiction and is based on the initial volume in Suzanne Collins' best-selling trilogy of young-adult novels. The second is painful reality: Lee Hirsch's documentary details the abuse that too many young people suffer at the hands of their peers. The Hunger Games is likely to follow the movies of the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises as a giant commercial hit whose audience will dwarf Bully's. But both films raise a vexing question for parents and for the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the industry's arbiter of movie ratings: What should kids see?
The MPAA typically considers three criteria--explicit violence, intense sexuality and raw language--in rating a film R for restricted, meaning a child under 17 can attend only with an adult guardian. Neither The Hunger Games nor Bully qualifies on the sex grounds. Collins' teen contestants may be expert with instruments of destruction, but they are erotically ignorant. In Bully, the young predators do most of their damage with trash talk.
The debatable issue in The Hunger Games is the amount of violence, including deaths by arrow, harpoon and machete. Because the movie doesn't linger on these moments--there's no kick to the kills--the MPAA classified The Hunger Games PG-13, allowing kids of any age to see it unsupervised. That's the same rating given to the quartet of Twilight films and to four of the eight Harry Potter movies, which were aimed at a slightly younger audience; the other four Potters got an even milder PG. For Lionsgate, The Hunger Games' sponsor, to release an R version would be a form of corporate hara-kiri.
In Bully, the kids who hand out verbal punishment occasionally use profanity as a tool of intimidation. "I will f---in' end you and stuff a broomstick up your ass," one boy, sitting in a Sioux City, Iowa, school bus, snarls at his 12-year-old seatmate. For six instances of the F word, the MPAA slapped Bully with the proscriptive R rating. Most of the MPAA board members voted to overturn that original rating, but the motion failed because it fell one vote short of the necessary two-thirds threshold. Thus Bully will be denied to many of the children it means to help--predators and prey alike.
A March 15 Washington screening hosted by MPAA boss and former Senator Chris Dodd was jammed with supporters of the film. Katy Butler, a Michigan teen whose petition on behalf of a PG-13 rating for the film has attracted more than 400,000 signatures, was there. So was David Long; the death of his 17-year-old son Tyler, who hanged himself after a torrent of taunting, is one of five cases of abused kids Bully tracks over the course of the 2009--10 school year. "A picture's worth a thousand words," Long said to Dodd of the need to change the film's rating so more children can see it. The hubbub was heaven to Harvey Weinstein, whose Weinstein Co. is distributing the film. Any indie doc can use free publicity. Bully did better: it became a cause for concerned parents and kids.
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