Director: Larry Clark
Cast: Brad Renfro, Rachel Miner, Nick Stahl, Bijou Phillips, Michael Pitt, Leo Fitzpatrick, Daniel Franzese, Kelli Garner
MPAA Rating: (contains strong violence, sexual content, drug use and language - all involving teens; intended for mature audiences)
Running Time: 1:53
Release Date: 7/13/01
Review by Mark Dujsik
Director Larry Clark knows youth in America. His newest film Bully essentially asks what the characters from his previous film Kids would do if they ever had the ambition to actually do something besides aimlessly wandering around, having sex (generally unprotected), and doing drugs. The answer is unfortunately one of those acts that too late captures the public’s attention to the dire situation and lifestyle many kids find themselves living. When these sort of events occur, the initial shock and sorrow quickly wears off, and the blaming begins. Headstrong politicians quickly jump to the entertainment industry—reinforcing restrictions on certain kinds of music and movies (I’m sure they’ll have a field day with this one)—and also to the parents—instating laws that find the parents of such children responsible and therefore partially guilty of the crime their offspring commit. While the intentions of such actions seem all well and good, they prematurely jump to finding a cure without considering the causes; they treat the symptoms but not the disease.
Based on the book Bully: A True Story of High School Revenge by Jim Schutze about a true occurrence in Florida, the film recounts the story of two teenagers Marty (Brad Renfro) and Bobby (Nick Stahl) who have been friends since they were kids. Bobby still goes to school and is planning on going to college and opening a store with his father. Marty is a high school dropout who spends his time surfing and offering phone services to older men, an activity organized by Bobby. The two split the profits of the enterprise, and in exchange for his humiliation, Bobby gives Marty rides in his car and the occasional beating. They meet two girls Lisa (Rachel Miner) and Ali (Bijou Phillips), and after an encounter in the car, Lisa is convinced she loves Marty. A while later, Lisa is pregnant, and although she says the baby is Marty’s, she is unsure because Bobby may or may not have forced himself on her. Lisa knows how Bobby treats Marty, and because of her love for him, she doesn’t want Bobby to have such control over people. Marty jokes the only way to stop him is to kill him; Lisa agrees but not in jest.
The film is wise in the way it offers many clues to and possibilities for the reasons these kids act the way they do but doesn’t provide answers or point fingers. Screenwriters Zachary Long and Roger Pullis instead delve into their lives, observing their communication with their families, examining their illogical social interactions, and portraying their tendencies toward reckless behavior. The one thing every one of these characters have in common is that they are weak. To everyone else, Bobby seems the strongest, but his weakness is shown in his need for Marty. Marty takes the abuse but then is just as controlling of Lisa. Lisa comes up with the idea of killing Bobby, but clings to Marty because he’s "a hunk" and fits the qualities of society’s image of the ideal man of which she has various examples hanging on her bedroom walls. Other social variables such as music and video games are tossed into play. Do they have something to contribute to the kids’ actions?
And where are the parents during all of this? They are present and have important parts to play in understanding the central characters’ lives. The parents aren’t depicted and generalized as absentee authority figures. Some are concerned and attempt to take an active command of their child’s life, as is the case with Bobby and his father (Ed Amatrudo), and from his actions, we know that it hasn’t done him any good. Lisa’s mother (Elizabeth Dimon) is always in the background asking about her daughter’s life. She seems to understand that something is amiss but is also powerless to help it. Marty’s family has a brief scene in which we understand that they leave Marty to his own business. Marty’s younger brother at times seems to be the only family he has. After hearing one of the characters tell a story about how abuse has passed through her family, we begin to wonder what effect these characters may be having on a younger generation.
The performances from the young actors are strong and daring. All of them are asked to explore extremely dark corners of humanity and expose themselves physically and psychologically in the process. As a result, there’s a naturalness to all of these performances. Brad Renfro is equally tormented and apathetic as Marty. Rachel Miner focuses on Lisa’s naiveté and, once her character begins scheming, takes on a Lady Macbeth quality. "There’s blood on my shoes" is a fine substitute for "Out damn spot." Nick Stahl is effectively threatening as Bobby, and while it would be easy to play the victim in a sympathetic light, the screenplay and Stahl have no qualms displaying his unpleasant nature. From the gruesome murder scene on, the characters are plunged into the consequences of their action. How they respond speaks volumes and perhaps even gives us a glimpse into what these people may have been like under different conditions. For some, there is remorse; for others, life goes on but in constant fear of being caught. This leads to the most frightening possibility: perhaps some people are simply born this way.
Clark comes under much fire for his graphic depiction of sexual activities. Some call it exploitation and others have gone so far as to call it pornography. Bully is neither; it’s documentation. Concentrating on the sexual content of a film like this is to miss the point entirely. Kids was a warning, and Bully suggests that the warning was ignored. The film is harrowing, depressing, and without a single bit of hope except that these kids were stupid enough to get caught. If such material and the pessimism accompanying it make some people uncomfortable, maybe they’re starting to get the point.
Note: I saw Bully well after finalizing my end of 2001 list. If I had seen it beforehand, it would have made the top 10.
Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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