The teenagers in Bully don’t give a damn ’bout their bad reputations. In fact, they don’t give a damn about anything but screwing, drugging, surfing and killing one of their own – it’s the last one that gets them in a spot of trouble. Kids director Larry Clark’s latest film features the raunchiest pack of soulless teen shitballs to hit the screen since… Kids.
Bully is quite well made, skillfully directed and masterfully acted. It’s also completely repellent and ultimately pointless.
The film takes place in the affluent environs of Hollywood, Florida. The story is based, who knows how closely, on an actual 1993 incident. (Though the film itself is not set in ’93 – too much Eminem and way too many cell phones tell us it’s 2000 or so.)
Marty Puccio (Brad Renfro) and Bobby Kent (Nick Stahl) are bestest buddies, despite the fact that Bobby’s favorite pastime is bad-rapping and bitch-slapping poor Marty. Bobby also seems to be a budding rapist, but that doesn’t deter local slagbag Ali (Bijou Phillips) from “hanging out” with him.
For Ali’s friend Lisa (Rachel Miner, a long way from her marriage to Macaulay Culkin), it’s love at first sight with Marty. But she just can’t tolerate Bobby’s constant abuse of her new loverboy. Marty admits to Lisa that he’s had enough. She nonchalantly suggests that they kill Bobby. A few halfhearted protests later, Marty agrees.
Ali enlists her stoner friends Heather (Kelli Garner) and Donny (Michæl Pitt). Lisa ropes in her hapless cousin Derek (Daniel Franzese). Somehow, a cocky older kid called “The Hitman” (Leo Fitzpatrick, all growed up from his charming turn as the serial cherry-buster in Kids) becomes involved too.
It’s hard to be too concerned about whether or not the vile Bobby is going to die at the hands of his friends: Bobby, like Bully, is a nasty piece of work. And indeed, after a little planning and a lot of drugs, Bobby is actually done away with. The film’s big murder scene is a tour de force of messy Grand Guignol bloodletting and comical ineptitude. Repercussions are felt before the night is over; these kids are, as they say, in over their heads.
Watching Bully, one wonders if Clark intends these lost causes to be laughable. Because most of the time, incredulous guffaws are the only conceivable response to the rank stupidity on display – especially once the deed is done and the kids can’t hardly wait to tell everyone in earshot that they were the first on their block to off someone. Lisa relates Bobby’s killing to a friend as if it happened in a movie she just caught down at the mall, even to the point of describing the murder as – God help us all – Extreme.
Clark is far more interested in capturing every inch of Miner’s ripe body on film than in dealing with issues of psychology or motivation. Lisa’s devolution from shy little cupcake to dead-eyed Young Miss Macbeth seems to occur somewhere offscreen, though she does have a few choice “Out, damned spot!” episodes.
It’s a pity that Clark has no use for any substantive insight, for depicting characters one cares about; if he did, this story might be have the wrenching power of “Over the Edge” or “Boys Don’t Cry.” As it is, Bully is simply a queasy parade of degradation, with a ruthlessly obnoxious soundtrack of thumping gangsta crap to boot. Maybe that’s what’s wrong with kids these days: if parents aren’t going to take an interest in their moral upbringing, they could at least play them a nice Stones record once in a while. It’d be better than nothing, and certainly better than the goddamn Wu-Tang Clan.
So Larry Clark is a tough filmmaker to figure out. Already legendary as a photographer – his books include Tulsa and, ahem, Teenage Lust – he is a formidable director of young actors. All the performances here are absolutely extraordinary in their casual naturalism. And Clark’s documentary style, his feel for texture and rhythm, are only improving. Plus, you have to admire the old perv for his ability to make these kids do what they do for his camera. We see acres of fresh flesh in Bully, crotch shots and all, which must count for something in this era of crazy/beautiful getting PG-13ed to spare us the mortifying sight of Kirsten Dunst smoking a joint and flashing her tits. (Big help at the boxoffice that was, by the way. Miramax should be proud.)
No, Clark’s problem is the stories he chooses to tell, the subjects he chooses to explore – or exploit. He’s an instinctive director, but not a very intelligent one; he’s got the sensationalism down, but he lacks a strong sensibility. For a photographer, he’s oddly bereft of a point of view on these kids. Bully is not a satire, not a tragedy, not a morality play. More than anything, it plays like an extended sick joke.
In criticizing this sort of stuff, one risks coming off as some sort of moralist bluenose. Then, however, one realizes it’s Clark who’s setting the tone, pulling the strings, laughing along with you at these aimless burnouts and the moronic garbage that dribbles out of their pretty mouths. As with Kids, for all its grubby “realism” there’s something about Bully that fairly screams, High School Confidential-style, “Alarming! Disturbing! A shocking exposé of today’s troubled youth!”
Clark evinces not the least bit of sympathy for these pathetic characters. If he did feel for any of them, he’d make the viewer feel it, feel something other than disgust. But he’s not into enlightening or uplifting – he’s into ogling, into wallowing. Really, what is the intended audience for Clark’s work? People who rubberneck at car crashes? Old men in raincoats? (Next up, Larry Clark directs “The Britney Spears Story”… well, we can always hope.)
Clark is some sort of artist, but his artistry is in service of a story that not only has no redeeming value, but is about kids who don’t have a heart, a soul or a brain between them. Is it too much to ask that someday, some director might make a film about a group of halfway intelligent teenagers? They must be out there somewhere.
In other words, who gives a rusty f**k about these wastoids? Of course it’s sad that their parents didn’t love them right and that they turned out wrong. But what is Bully telling us that Columbine didn’t? Some kids turn out bad, and that’s just the way it is. Joan Jett still said it best: “The world’s in trouble, there’s no communication.”
See Bully at your own risk. Me, I’ll stick with “Freaks and Geeks.”
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