Starring Brad Renfro, Bijou Phillips, Rachel Miner, Nick Stahl, Michael Pitt, Leo Fitzpatrick, Kelli Garner, Daniel Franzese, Nathalie Paulding, Ed Amatrudo, Jessica Sutta
Directed by Larry Clark
I can neither say that I liked or disliked Larry Clark’s Bully. It definitely has moments of pure honesty and tension that sear themselves into your psyche like a bullet to the brain, but it’s more often than not boring and meandering. In this way, it reflects its character well, a bunch of kids who are just along for the ride. They don’t particularly care who they’re with or where they’re going, just as long as they’re going somewhere, and experiencing something. But this is no way to live a life, and Bully fully explores this as the film moves closer to its finale.
Bully tells the story of Marty (Brad Renfro) and his friend Bobby (Nick Stahl). They’ve been friends since they were little kids, but that friendship isn’t built on trust and loyalty, it’s built on fear. Bobby bullies Marty incessantly, treating him like a slave and hitting him for messing up, even when others are around. Marty, of course, just takes it and tries to contain his anger. Clark never explores where Marty releases this anger, but based on his love of surfing, I think it’s safe to assume that riding the waves is more about a sense of freedom and cleansing than simply soaking up some rays.
When Marty meets Lisa, things start to change. Through a bad series of events, Lisa determines that the source of “all their problems” is Bobby, and after a flippant remark by Marty about killing him, she takes it seriously. She’s stone cold in her desire for Bobby’s death, and rarely wavers from that state. Marty agrees without much thought, because he’s been conditioned to just go along with what other people want him to do, and so begins the plot to murder the asshole bully and rapist Bobby.
The root themes of Bully are not simply focused on these plot points, though, they work at a level beyond the on-screen struggle of the kids involved. These are kids desensitized to violence, living in a world where they’ve never had to deal with war, or any other major life-changing event. Bully was released just a few months prior to September, 11, 2001, a date that ultimately would become this generation’s turning point and defining moment, but the kids in this tale are of an age free of that sort of burden. Bully dramatizes a true story that took place in the early ’90s.
We see their desensitization to violence through moments like when Lisa’s friend Allie tries to tell Lisa about how she was just raped, and Lisa laughs it off like she’s joking, or a particularly affecting Mortal Kombat battle that “proves” that one of the kids is capable of some serious, cold-blooded killer shit. This speaks to the futility of video games as well, as their young lives have been spent honing their hand-eye coordination to the point of having a skill that isn’t really an actual skill. But beyond desensitization and meaningless skill, these kids are just oblivious. They are entitled, upper middle-class kids to clueless parents, completely lacking the drive shaft to become contributing members of society. They have no goals and no desire to take any responsibilities for their own actions, passing blame and self-destructing in crucial moments. They have grown up knowing too much freedom, and have suffered the consequences. The film feels like both a representation of a small slice of these characters’ reality, and social commentary on the state of youth and the country as a whole.
Many scenes in Bully are incredibly affecting, and towards the close of the film there is an absolutely flawless, tense scene that defines the movie, both in memorability and in the coming together of all of the film’s many threads on the state of youth. In this moment, it’s as if all is revealed and the workmanship and the craft in creating the film version of this tale comes to light. That being said, there’s an equal — perhaps more than equal — amount of bloat to Bully. The film is overlong, and is stuffed full of gratuitous, exploitative sex and nude scenes. There’s also a fair share of completely surreal, unbelievable moments that don’t work such as a pep talk about stereo stores between a completely nude Bobby and his father. There is a lot being said under the surface of the film, but the chatter over the top is much too noisy for it to break free into something that could make a true societal impact.
Bully is the first Larry Clark film I’ve seen (I’ve also never seen a Harmony Korine film), and I’m glad to finally have some idea of what all the fuss is about. I can’t say that I liked this one, but I’m definitely not opposed to the idea of seeing another, if only with the hopes that it might be more focused and tighter than Bully was. Bully is a hard one to recommend… I’d say you’re probably better off watching something else, unless the subject matter interests you.