2001, NR, 106 min. Directed by Larry Clark. Starring Brad Renfro, Rachel Miner, Nick Stahl, Bijou Phillips, Michael Pitt, Kelli Garner, Daniel Franzese, Leo Fitzpatrick.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., July 27, 2001
Bully stirs up a troubling stew of emotions that are far from simple to digest. In this rests both its strengths and weaknesses. Larry Clark, the famed photographer-turned-director of 1995's controversial Kids (a story about New York teens who screw around with drugs and unprotected sex) and the underappreciated Another Day in Paradise (a road picture about two generations of thieving junkies), again presents us with disturbing subject matter that becomes ever more perplexing by dint of his sometimes questionable aesthetic choices. Based on a true-crime story about a Florida teenager who was murdered in 1993 by a group of friends and his best buddy, the script (by Zachary Long and Roger Pullis) is adapted from Jim Schutze's book about the case. The film draws a disturbing portrait of aimless and valueless American teens, whose ambitions extend to little more than the acquisition of sex and drugs. The parents fare little better: They're present but uninvolved, adrift in their own malaise. Stahl plays Bobby Kent, the teen who is murdered, ostensibly for bullying his best friend Marty (Renfro) and others in his circle. The idea is hatched by Marty's girlfriend Lisa (Miner), a Pizza Hut Lady Macbeth who calls in some friends (some of whom have never even met Bobby) to commit the fatal act. As much as he is abused by Bobby, it would never occur to Marty that he could just walk away from this sado-masochistic relationship. Instead, he beseeches his parents to move to a new neighborhood. Typical teen thinking is the aspect of Bully that comes off the best. Aided by its frighteningly superb performances, Bully has an ultra-realistic feel. Conversations and events occur as the result of believable teen-think. For example, everyone agrees that it would be a good idea to kill Bobby, but a solid plan never comes into sharp focus -- even once the murder has fumbled to the starting line. The kids are a representative lot: Bobby is probably the only one who will graduate from high school, go to college, and enter business; Marty is a dropout from high school and surfing, who mostly earns money from giving gay phone sex on Bobby's orders. Bijou Phillips is a promiscuous sensualist who has a child who is cared for by her parents, another girl is a pushover just out a rehab, one boy is overweight and self-conscious, another an amiable druggie whose brain fried long ago, and Leo Fitzpatrick from Kids plays a character who thinks he's a lot more Mob-connected than he really is. These killers' faces are reflected in the glass screens of America's video arcades. Clark sabotages his movie, however, with his gratuitous camerawork that lingers over lithe young bodies in the constant throes of sex and his ever-present crotch shots (particularly aimed at Phillips). (Bully's distributors have decided to release the film unrated rather than even try its luck with the ratings board.) The film's naked plenitude (and pulchritude) casts suspicion on Clark's ulterior reasons for making the movie -- especially in light of the fact that Bully doesn't seem to have an overall point of view that it's trying to push. There are no heroes or victims, and everyone is at least a minor villain. Clark's film is disturbing not only for what it shows, but how it shows it. If it weren't so rivetingly realistic, it would be an easy film to dismiss. And if it weren't so easily dismissible, it would be an easy film to defend. (See interview with Larry Clark on p.44 of this week's Screens section.)