Infamous director Larry Clark, similar to his 1995 debut Kids, uses his familiar trademarks of sexualized teens and kids behaving badly to bring forth the true life story of a bunch of teens in a suburban wasteland of Florida, led by Marty Puccio (Brad Renfro) and his girlfriend Lisa Connelly (Rachel Miner) , to murder their bullying friend, Bobby Kent (Nick Stahl). Marty’s girlfriend, Lisa, who believes Bobby is in the way of their relationship, convinces them to murder him. Eventually the guilt gets to them, their plans unravel, the paranoia sets in.
The MPAA awarded a (not surprising) NC-17 rating for gratuitous nudity and violence, all involving actors portraying teens. So, your local cineplex probably didn’t carry it. Plus, many thought Clark was a one-hit wonder with Kids, and another movie with aimless youngsters acting out was not in demand.
Reviews were not stellar. This is a film about awful people doing awful things. It’s not about justice or a big life lesson, it’s presented as what it is. Their actions are not glorified, but mainstream audiences usually want to see the the good guys win and have evil defeated. That’s not how the world works, and Larry Clark knows that. In fact, he revels in it.
Despite the characters acting atrociously, and the subject matter being disturbing, it is a masterpiece when it comes to character study. The character’s actions and dialogue are so revealing of their motivations, desires, and insecurities, that the viewer is keenly aware of what will happen to the characters as the story unfolds. The knowing is not one of predictability, but of a feeling of being engrossed in their situation.
Where Kids was a low-budget indie film, Bully is filmed with a richer quality and grander cinematography. The increased production value does not hinder Clark’s ability to capture realness and rawness. When I first watched it, the flow of dialogue made me believe the actors were improvising their lines because the dialogue flow. After reading the source material, I was surprised to find that much of the dialogue was pulled from the true-crime account (Bully: A True Story of High School Revenge by Jim Shutze).
Bijou Phillips, who seems to shine in bitchy-rich-girl roles, shines as the alpha of the pack and Lisa’s best friend. Early in the story, she is sexually assaulted by Bobby, yet still allows herself to be used as bait to lure Bobby to the murder scene; she couldn’t bear to miss the fun and be the center of attention. Michael Pitt plays a believable stoner Donny, easily cajoled into doing anything. Rachel Miner (known for being the ex-Macaulay Culkin and the sexy assistant on Californication) plays the needy, clingy Lisa. This is a powerhouse performance that aught to have opened more doors for her.
The highlight however, is Larry Clark favorite Leo Fitzpatrick who plays the hitman hired to help the crew. The fact that he lives with his father and there are a million holes in his plot to kill Bobby don’t faze the group one bit, since they are caught up in the excitement of the ride and don’t have any sort of grasp in reality and morals. These characters bare it all, literally and figuratively, and it is impossible to look away. Clark has an undeniable talent on letting the camera linger on the right moments and to use nonverbal actions just as much as dialogue. It makes me wonder what his coaching to the actors is in order to get such realistic portrayals.
I can’t saw enough how enjoyably deplorable these characters are. They are high school dropouts and do nothing but spend their parents money on drugs and cars. They are so without merit that I was glued to the screen to see what they will do or say next. In some way, the viewer is led to have some sympathy for Lisa, who is always struggling with self esteem and insecure and just wants to have a boyfriend without anyone getting in her way. To our chagrin, she is delighted when she finds out that she is pregnant with Marty’s child after a few weeks of knowing him, and even when he physically abuses her when she finds out. She and the others have no sense of consequences for their actions.
The source material asks “Who’s to blame?” [for the murder of Bobby Kent] This film certainly doesn’t aim to answer this question, but provides the material needed for a good debate. Is this a result of the free will of these misguided teens? Or is it the society and environment in which they were raised? Parents are present, but are ineffectual in their expressions of worry for their children, in a case where peer pressure trumps all. You already know that they are facing a losing battle.
Bully also contains some great direction/cinematography worth mentioning:
When the gang visits the hired hitman’s house, they stand in a circle and discuss the logistics of Bobby’s murder. The cameraman circles the group as they talk about the plan, how they will carry it out, and the hitman’s chiding of their lack of strategic criminal thinking. The camera circles the group and captures everyone’s facial reactions to this conversation, one whom continues to chomp her gum oblivious to the consequences, one who is still high, one who is nervous but doesn’t want to show the group. We see the hopelessness of the situation, the stupidity and recklessness of the group. It’s both heartbreaking, frustrating, and brilliant. This is a film that both loathes and is fascinated by its characters.
The epilogue (SPOILER ALERT, please skip if don’t want to know the fate of the group) shows the mismatched teens on trial for the murder of Kent. Is it really a spoiler to say these kids don’t get away with it? As they are on the stand (I’m not sure in reality they would all be in the courtroom at the same time) they begin to argue with each other about who is at fault, hurling insults and throwing blame, and acting like the immature young adults they really are. As this is happening, we see the adults in the courtroom (including their parents) look on in amazement, pity, and scorn, representing the judging eyes of the public. Brilliant.