“Bully” is the latest from Larry Clark, who had been working as a photograph for decades documenting visually wasted youths before he made “Kids” in 1995. I couldn’t stand that movie, but in a way I could appreciate Clark’s ultra-realistic, unflinching depiction of aimless New York teens. I figured that while I loathed everything about the characters and their lifestyle and was barely able to watch it unfold on-screen, maybe that was the point. This time tough, as Clark indulges once more in voyeuristically displaying underage sexuality and amoral behaviour, I can’t let it pass.
The film is based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Jim Schutze about how a group of teenagers and twentysomethings ended up murdering one of their friends, supposedly because he was a bully making their life hell. From the looks of it though (at least as we can gather from the movie), they were hardly innocent victims. Sure, Bobby Kent (Nick Stahl) keeps mocking and smacking his “best friend” Marty (Brad Renfro), with whom he also has an ambiguous homosexual thing going on that they’re obviously not very comfortable or clear about. Then Bobby is a misogynistic, rude, violent jerk, but so’s Marty, and the girls who weather their abuse are kind of bringing it on themselves. I know it’s wrong to say that a rape victim was asking for it but when, like Ali (Bijou Philips), she struts around half naked and is giving Bobby a blow-job after spending less than fifteen minutes with him…
Or when her friend Lisa (Rachel Miner, Macaulay Culkin’s ex-wife; how funny does that sound?) gets beat up by Marty after telling him he knocked her up when they had unprotected sex, which they keep having after because, despite her being bruised all over, she “loooooves” him… I’m sorry, but if you’re stupid enough to stay in situations like that, it’s hard to feel pity for you, which goes for practically every character in the film: blue-haired Heather (Kelly Garner), who just gets high and giggles in her corner, stoner Donny (Michael Pitt) who might be retarded, overweight geek Derek (Daniel Franzese)… Some of them don’t do anything too bad before getting involved with the murder of Bobby, but just participating in that cruel act or letting it happen is too much.
This story could have made for a good or great film. It could have been a disturbing exploration of how and why high school shootings happen. But this isn’t the movie Larry Clark has made. All the 60 year old filmmaker seems to be interested in is kids “doing it”. There must be a dozen sex scenes, most of them superfluous, and even the one that serves a dramatic purpose (like the rape) didn’t have to be shot so crudely. We see their nude bodies continuously, but we never get into these kids’ heads. We do see them listening to gangsta rap, playing the ultra-violent video game Mortal Kombat and getting wasted, but if Clark’s saying that this is what made them evil, what about the millions of others who do the same but don’t kill anyone? I’ve also read reviews saying that these kids are stuck in a boring, empty suburban world where sex, drugs and violence are the only things to fill the void in their lives. What??? They’re rich white young males who get to hang on the Florida beaches, drive new cars and date gorgeous girls, not black ghetto kids caught in a circle of violence (re: “Menace II Society”) or poor white trash kids who don’t know better (re: “Boys Don’t Cry”).
I truly loathed “Bully”. Sure, like “Kids”, it does sustain an eerily realistic tone, with all the young actors delivering performances so natural that you feel like you’re watching a documentary. But it wanders way too far into sensationalistic exploitation while avoiding any psychological insight. “Bully” is an utterly disgusting, insulting picture and I’m not buying into Clark’s rationalization that he “just intended it to be realistic.” When you’ve got your camera right in Bijou Philips’ crotch, straining to catch a glimpse of pubic hair off the side of her cut-off jeans, don’t take us for morons and pretend it’s for realism’s sake.