I watched Ruth Thomas-Suh's remarkable documentary Reject twice back-to-back.
The first time? I hated it.
I mean it. I really hated it. I found it boring. I found it uninvolving.
Okay, maybe "hate" is too strong of a word. But, I just plain didn't like it.
For a variety of reasons, I was drawn back to the film again to give it another chance. This was partly because a friend and fellow critic had praised the film highly. It was also partly because, quite honestly, I'd met the filmmaker during the 2013 Heartland Film Festival and found her to be an absolute delight. I'd loved everything she'd had to say about the film. How could I possibly not like the film?
Of course, it was always possible that the film contained a wealth of awesome information that was badly presented. I've certainly had that happen before, but my gut was telling me there was something more.
So, I watched Reject again.
And I remembered.
And I sobbed.
And I sat there with my entire being glued to the screen as we got not some half-assed hyped up emotional appeal for love and tolerance and not some Michael Moore-styled grandstander of a film designed to appeal to the masses, but one of the most intellectually astute and heartfelt documentaries I've witnessed to address the concept of social rejection.
The core message of Reject is actually quite simple - that social rejection has a profound impact on human life. While many documentarians would be content to make the grand statement and surround it with entertaining anecdotes and emotionally resonant testimonials, Ruth Thomas-Suh's documentary is transcendent because she far exceeds the research concrete evidence one usually expects to find in this type of film.
There are moments that, yes, the presentation of this information and research is a tad dry. After all, the goal here is not so much to entertain but to inform, enlighten, and inspire. When I preach what I call my "testimonial" sermon, I find myself often sharing the story of my first day in public schools after being transferred out of a school designated specifically for those children with disabilities. My first memory is of "Mike," one of the popular kids, looking at me while I pulled out my beloved thermos filled with Spaghettios and proceeding to make fun of the way that I held my spoon.
It would be years before I would feel comfortable eating around others again. I would become known for visiting friends and never eating or sharing a meal. I would become known for the laughter and jokes that would often fill our school lunches, laughter and jokes that were actually masking my own insecurities.
There are other things I remember, of course, but I had to remind myself that Reject was not about me even though it resonated deeply and felt incredibly personal. Despite the overwhelmingly intellectual approach of the film, it works because all of that intellect and thought and research is put into application in tangible and occasionally unsettling ways whether talking about the learning process, the cycle of violence or, yes, even school shootings.
Thomas-Suh does an excellent job of showing how the issue of bullying causes someone to snap either internally or externally. She provides examples, of course, to accompany the convincing research and, at times, the weaving together of the two is unsettling at best. While films like Bully are important, on a certain level they are primarily designed to elicit an emotional response that leads the viewer to follow-up with some sort of action. Reject, while relying somewhat less on the emotional appeal, actually empowers the viewer to act by providing tangible facts and tools.
While Reject may sound heavy and even downbeat, Thomas-Suh also responsibly looks at the reverse of social rejection by broaching the idea of social inclusion and acceptance. While that may sound like politically progressive term, Thomas-Suh grounds it firmly within the psychology of children and development and sociological impact.
I'm not sure what it says about me that I struggled with Reject during my first viewing, a fact that should be considered given that a good majority of viewers may not necessarily be able to watch the film twice. I suppose what it says, at least for me, is that for those who have experienced abuse and rejection or bullying that it helps to be aware of the film and its potential to trigger.
Ultimately, Reject is an important film that will resonate deeply with those in the helping professions and those who've been hurt. For more information on the film, visit its website linked to in the credits.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic