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Film Review: Rats & Bullies

New documentary explores the suicide of a teenage girl.

by Bernard G. Mayer
June 21, 2004

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Rats & Bullies_Bernard G. Mayer- I usually don’t go to the movies to watch documentaries. When I think of a documentary I am reminded of those stuffy films we all had to watch about bees and pollination in grade school, or those historical “film-strips” with poor audio recounting the final days of the Civil War.

This past weekend I attended the DancesWithFilms Film Festival, celebrating its 7th year and held in Santa Monica. This year's festival offered a bevy of short subject films, feature-length fiction films, along with a handful of various sized documentaries. Upon reading the synopses provided inside an attractive glossy program, one film in particular caught my attention: a documentary film called “Rats & Bullies”.

The film is about a teenaged 9th grade girl named Dawn-Marie Wesley from British Columbia, Canada, who after being taunted and bullied by a trio of girls from her school, elected to hang herself using her own dog’s leash. She had left a suicide note below her, addressed to her parents, her younger brother and her best friend explaining in exasperated fashion her hopelessness and depression: “…Mom, if I tried to get help it would have gotten worse. They are always looking for a new person to beat up, and these are the toughest girls. If I ratted, I would get them kicked out of school, and then there is nothing stopping them…”

Dawn-Marie’s 13 year old brother would be the one to walk in and discover her horrifying choice. Legal history was made as the three girls were charged for their role in Dawn-Marie’s death.

I couldn’t help but marvel at the superb timing in the release of this story in light of all the recent attention being given to youth crime and bullying. I was also curious about how the filmmakers would approach the delicate subject of teen suicide, which is probably every parent’s worst nightmare. I knew that I had to see this film.

I learned that each film only played once, and “Rats & Bullies” had quite an early showing. I usually like to sleep in on Saturdays but I arrived just in time for the 11:00 AM film. The theater was already dark and crowded and a clever instructional short on how to rate each film for the festival’s competition had just begun.

Rats & Bullies began with an impressive array of data on children who have committed acts of violence to themselves and others due to bullying from around the world. Quickly the story settled on Dawn-Marie Wesley as the narration stated “This is her story” and then launched into an upbeat introduction which gradually enveloped the viewer into the surroundings of a small town called “Mission” within British Columbia.

As the interviews began, I immediately felt an intimate connection with each person that spoke. The dialogue was conversational with very little camera movement or interruption as the story of how Dawn-Marie was bullied unfolded through the words of her family, friends and one of the bullies themselves. Spliced with these interviews were illustrative scenes by whom I later learned to be local teen actors portraying the girls in the story. I found these scenes to be very helpful in displaying the events clearly and succinctly.

I was moved on more than several occasions by the grief and incomprehension on the faces of those in the film, who I now felt I knew personally. After taking the audience chronologically through the events of bullying and the death of Dawn-Marie, the filmmakers Roberta McMillan and Ray Buffer followed the story through the court trials and the emotional wreckage left in the destroyed lives of the survivors.

Though the story was sad and moving, this accounting of the treachery and cruelty of teen girls did have some uplifting and humorous moments. Rosalind Wiseman, a Washington D.C. based author of prominence due to her recent book “Queen Bees and Wannabes” on which the light-hearted film “Mean Girls” is based, was also interviewed as part of “Rats & Bullies”. Her advice and allegories provided much wisdom. I was also captivated by the short story of another mother named Karen McQuade from the same small town of Mission, British Columbia who had prevented her son from taking his life due to bullying.

I was impressed with the sensitivity shown by McMillan and Buffer in the telling of this sorrowful tale. They succeeded in showing that everyone involved had choices to make and that those choices came with a price. I came away from the film having learned something not only about what is known as “relational aggression” but also about myself. I am a bully. I saw behaviors and conduct within this film by bullies that I myself had done. “Rats & Bullies” can teach you something about yourself, keep your attention, and move you. It is the type of documentary that I should have been shown in grade school, rather than the one about beehives. I hope this film gains a theatrical release so that everyone will have an opportunity to see this movie. It has been a while since I applauded a film, but mine were two of the many clapping hands during “Rats & Bullies” end credits, as we, the audience, showed our appreciation for a fine film.

“Rats & Bullies” contains some strong language, but should be appropriate for teens and up.

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