Monday, July 2, 2012

Reeling Backward: "Bully" (2001)

No, this column is not about the much-lauded documentary film from last year that looked at kids pushed to the margins of their school community. Instead, I'm catching up with the 2001 drama from director Larry Clark, based on the true story of a group of youngsters who brutally murdered the friend they claimed had been verbally and physically abusing them.

Clark made a name for himself with 1995's "Kids," which like this film focuses on very young (sometimes underage) individuals who smoke, drink, do drugs, have random sex and engage in criminal and violent behavior with little thought or feeling. Clark is a chronicler of a wastrel generation that exists largely in the fevered nightmares of parents and outlier cases of extremist behavior.

"Witness, and lament" seems to be the message of Clark's cautionary tales -- which nonetheless get an undeniable kick out of lurid depictions of the aforementioned sex and drugs.

Like "Kids," "Bully" was a very polarizing film that many critics did not react to very positively. I can see why. Its performances by then mostly-unknown lead actors are often riveting, especially Brad Renfro, Nick Stahl and Rachel Miner. Other cast members, though, deliver amateurishly wooden turns.

 Over time, the movie falls into a river of sameness, so we feel like we're watching endless scenes of the kids hanging out in their bedrooms, smoking pot, riding around aimlessly in cars and using the f-word with a frequency to make Scorsese and Tarantino wince.

The film essentially divides itself into two parts. The first is fun-n-games as the characters party and hook up with each other. They're rebels without a clue, but it's difficult to deny the lurid allure of their bad behavior. The second half deals mostly with the planning, execution and fallout of the murder itself.

Despite the description I've provided, I actually found the former section more disturbing. Clark's camera oozes languidly up and over the bodies of his subjects, girls and boys alike, including full-frontal nudity and rather graphic depictions of sexual couplings. I'm certainly not a prude, but much of this seems ladled in unnecessarily, and lingering longer than it needs to. I think of one shot where a girl is answering her phone while getting a pedicure; the camera's gaze stops at the intersection of her short-shorts, where her outer labia peeks out. I suppose her lack of care about exposing herself is supposed to show her wanton nature, but I just felt creepy in that moment, like a peeping tom assisted by the filmmaker.

I do give high marks to Clark for capturing the south Florida haze of the early 1990s, where everyone seems to live in the same low-squat type of house and depend on their cars and their parents' generosity for their freedom. In this regard he crystallizes the boredom and  aimlessness of spent youth in the balmy heat of the Sunshine State where I grew up.

Renfro plays Marty Puccio, a lifelong friend of Bobby Kent (Stahl), and also the recipient of his abuse. While working in a sandwich shop together, Bobby slams Marty's head into a display case while they're serving two young girls. Despite this, the boys make plans to meet them later for dates -- which consists entirely of sex in Bobby's car.

Ali Willis (Bijou Phillips) is the proverbial wild girl, already a teen mother and not slowing down one bit despite that. She jumps from boy to boy like a leapfrog, and the very idea of committing herself to any one of them would strike her as bizarre. She later agrees to hook up with Bobby again on the dare that he's into some really weird stuff.

Lisa (Miner) is the quieter one, but in some ways more dangerous. After having sex with Marty (which we suspect is her deflowering) she insists that she loves him with all her heart. Even when she announces her pregnancy to him and Marty physically assaults her, Lisa remains hopelessly committed.

In fact, it is at Lisa's urging that the plot to kill Bobby is hatched. She recruits others into the mix, even a "hitman" who turns out to be merely another adolescent loser with gang tattoos, and insistently calls for Bobby's head. "I want him dead tonight," she says on more than one night, until the deed is finally done.

Bobby is indeed depicted as a loathsome creature -- a good student from a good family who hid a blackhearted side from grownups. The movie never really explores his nature enough to understand where this terrible bravado and caustic mindset come from. His father is shown as stern and demanding, but is that enough to push him into virtually raping girls, battering his best friend bloody and bruised, and tempting gay men with promises of Marty's favors?

The homoerotic relationship between Bobby and Marty is given much screen time. Though they never actually have physical contact (beyond Marty's blows), it's clear that Bobby at least sees Marty as a sex object to be exploited.

The wind-up and aftermath of Bobby's slaying are disappointing -- though the actual killing has a chilling spontaneity, no doubt reflecting the actual crime, which is well-documented. Lisa convinces everyone that Bobby is the center of all their problems, even though he actually exists largely outside their social circle. It would seem that if nature were allowed to take its course, he would simply wander away from their lives, going off to a good college while they continue their post-graduation adolescent torpor.

Seven people took part in Bobby's killing, and it is of course absurd to argue that one person could bully seven others to the point where they felt self-defense was their only recourse. Indeed, several of those convicted had never even met Bobby before the night of the murder. Marty, simply by virtue of being Bobby's best friend, was given the harshest sentence of electrocution, though that was later changed to life in prison. Everyone else has already finished their sentences (though at least a couple are currently incarcerated for other crimes).

Interestingly, Lisa received one of the lighter sentences in the case, even though she was the wellspring from which the entire crime was born. Her child was later discovered to be Bobby's, not Marty's -- a brief and confusing scene in the film suggests Bobby raped her after beating up Marty, though the record appears to show she had willing sex with both of them.

There is no doubt that "Bully" is a bold movie, highly disturbing and engaging. But after an hour or so of stoking our prurient interests, director Clark's movie devolves into surely the lamest whodunit in the history of cinema, with the suspects in a dimwitted race with each other to see who can spill their secret the fastest. "Bully" is more interested in teasing than teaching.

2 stars out of four

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