Justice

Jason Bateman's New Movie Nails the Terrors of Bullying

Earlier this year, I published a painful personal essay about the long-term negative impact bullying has on its victims. The Lancet, a medical journal, had recently published a study that found kids who are bullied often face mental health issues and have a difficult time trusting people later in life, and given my own traumatic experiences as a victim, the research hit close to home. It was so awful, in fact, that even one of my most relentless harassers asked if I had ever considered bringing a gun to school because I got "picked on constantly and [he wanted] to know when to run." That stung, not just because he insinuated that I was capable of horrific violence, but because my bullies believed they could be cruel enough to push me to that point, yet refused to ease up and show some compassion.

Fourteen years later, I lead a stable, healthy existence even though these memories disturb me every once in a while. As I mentioned in May, I sometimes worry that the good things and people in my life are going to disappear, as I had to be prepared for friends to drop me to improve their own social prospects, teachers to remain silent or even laugh themselves while I repeatedly faced humiliation at the hands of my peers, and administrators to brush me off during the most vulnerable, darkest years of my life. This is one of the many reasons I was struck by Joel Edgerton's "The Gift," which might be the first film to thoroughly depict the slow burn of bullying and how it erodes at a person's spirit well after the experiences are behind him or her.


 

"The Gift," which Vulture says truly lives up to its psychological thriller categorization, follows Simon (Jason Bateman) and his wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall) after they move from Chicago to his hometown of Los Angeles for his new job. While they're out shopping for household essentials one day, a man named Gordo (Joel Edgerton, also the director) approaches them in a store to say he went to school with Simon. They exchange pleasantries and phone numbers to set up a dinner, but before this get-together even takes place, Gordo shows up to their home in the middle of a work day to give Simon and Robyn a bottle of wine.

Though Robyn finds this gesture sweet, she is unsure how he obtained their address. Gordo repeatedly drops in when he knows Simon is at the office to present the couple with gifts. Simon doesn't like Gordo's aggressive attempts at a relationship, but Robyn tries to see the best in this "misunderstood" individual. During their uncomfortable dinner, Gordo spends most of the time asking about their lives and even makes a tasteless remark about Robyn's recent miscarriage, the first of many signs that he doesn't actually want their friendship. Once the meal is over, Simon says his nickname was "Gordo the Weirdo" in high school, adding that Gordo seems just as pathetic and awkward as he did decades earlier.
 

 

Do you remember the creepy kid from high school... He remembers you. #GiftMovie

Posted by The Gift Movie on Wednesday, July 15, 2015


From the trailer, one can discern that Simon and Gordo have an unfortunate history from high school, and Simon goes to great lengths to shield his background as a merciless bully from his wife, Robyn. Simon blossomed into a successful career man with a beautiful wife, lovely home, and cute dog, whereas Gordo is stuck in his hometown and past after he was discharged from the military. Without giving too much away, we also learn that Gordo doesn't have a supportive family or spouse to fall back on. Later in the film, Simon has an opportunity to reflect on the impact of his high school bullying and see that he largely contributed to the crumbling of another man's life, but refuses to say sorry or understand why Gordo might appreciate some closure after all this time.

What others are saying about the bullying message in "The Gift"

"The actor Joel Edgerton's impressive debut feature is a study of bullying and its consequences masquerading as a thriller," writes the Independent's Geoffrey Macnab. "What makes one child persecute another? Do bullies really change as they grow older? It is while exploring these questions that the film is at its most intriguing."

Once again, I will avoid spoiling any important details, but I can say that the end is upsetting and I don't in any way condone Gordo's inappropriate gestures throughout the film. Though I didn't feel this way growing up, I have no interest in getting revenge on my former bullies now, nor do I expect apologies should they feel compelled to share words of regret with me. Unlike Gordo, however, I come from a position of privilege. Even as classmates harangued me nonstop over the years, I always believed in my ability to write and knew that would eventually be my ticket out of my insular, small hometown. I also had parents who stuck their necks out for me and three friends who stood by me even though the association held them back socially. By design, I had the tools to overcome my experiences.

Singers Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga are also examples of former bullied children who struggled through adolescence but with their talent and resources, evolved into phenomenal, popular adults with fantastic careers. They're the bullying victim success stories we universally celebrate, but these women, of course, are exceptions. Many bullied kids don't have such a happy ending, and "The Gift" highlights this reality in a terrifying way.