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Bully   C-

Lions Gate Films / StudioCanal

Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Director: Larry Clark
Writers: Zachary Long, Roger Pullis (based on the novel by Jim Schutze)
Cast: Brad Renfro, Nick Stahl, Bijou Phillips, Rachel Miner, Michael Pitt, Kelli Garner, Daniel Franzese, Leo Fitzpatrick.

Review by Jeremiah Kipp

Bully, based on a true story, is set in the bland suburban streets of South Florida. Hunky, clueless Marty Puccio (Brad Renfro, Apt Pupil) coulda been a contender. He's got all the makings of a championship surfer, but lacks the incentive (and brains) to make anything of himself other than a pot-smoking Eminem clone. His closest relationship is with childhood friend Bobby Kent (Nick Stahl, Disturbing Behavior), an abusive prep. Bobby smacks Marty around, forces him to dance half-naked onstage before a crowd of leering octogenarian Floridians (!), rapes Marty's girlfriend (Rachel Miner), rapes Marty's girlfriend's friend (Bijou Phillips, Black and White), coerces Marty into making dirty videos, and (in general) is Pure Evil. Marty's girlfriend suggests that they gather together their friends and put an end to Bobby Kent once and for all. That's right. They want to kill him in a nearby swamp and leave him for the gators. Why not? They ain't got nothing better to do tonight!

That's the plot in a nutshell, familiar to anyone who's seen the superior River's Edge. The fact that Larry Clark is using this event (which took place in 1993, long before Columbine) for his own indulgence, all in the name of "realism," brings up certain important ethical questions (20, in fact) worth discussing.

20 Questions for Larry Clark:

1. Is it brave of Larry Clark to explore the "dark underside of youth culture" in films like Kids and Bully, or does that surface controversy exist to disguise his impulse to get young, skinny boys and girls to strip off their clothes for his whims?

2. Lusty male members of the raincoat patrol will find much pleasure in the ample womanly flesh on display. Rachel Miner and Bijou Phillips show off their attractive young bodies from head to toe -- and Miner is seemingly naked in every other scene. My question, if turnabout is fair play, is why we never see any pickle shots of Nick Stahl or Brad Renfro? Was Larry Clark not feeling like an equal opportunity exploitation artist this time around? Oddly enough, the same can be said for Kids. Plenty of pussy here, but is Clark afraid of showing some dick?

3. Speaking of which, in the beauty salon scene, why is there an insert shot of Bijou Phillips crotch, apropos of nothing? She's sitting there, talking, then you cut to her crotch, then you cut back to her talking again. I know some audience members chuckled a little. Maybe it was all in the name of good, clean fun? Uh... and on top of that, she was wearing shorts! What's the point? (Exhibit A: L'Humanite, which did the same thing, sans trousers, and actually made sense.)

4. Is it fair to say that society doesn't understand why teenagers commit acts of violence, and if that is the case, do we learn anything more by watching them do it in a movie which pits them against a monstrous, near-caricaturish villain (the bully of the title) who is the teeny-bopper version of "The Thief" from Peter Greenaway's grand-guignol classic, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover? Has any light really been shed on this situation? No, I mean -- really -- has any light been shed on this hotbed of discussion?

5. Is it "realism" to take a true-life event and twist it around into something Dramatic? To transform individuals into characters that evolve between Act One and Act Three? Do young adults really turn into Lady Macbeth at the sight of blood? Wash that blood away. Is this a dagger I see before me? Furthermore, why was David McKenna hired to write this? He already flaunted his by-the-numbers sense of structure in the Johnny Depp debacle, Blow.

6. The locations have the right amount of props scattered in messy kitchens (beer cans, open boxes of cereal) and makeshift posters on the wall ripped from the pages of rap and teen beat magazines. Despite Clark's self-conscious tricks, stripping his scenes clean of all human depth, we'd like to know the talents behind the skilled Production and Costume Design? Nicely done. (Answer: Production Designer Lisa Burton and Costume Designer Carleen Ileana Rosado.)

7. Does Nick Stahl think that by playing a leering villain he will escape from the teeny-bopper trap where Freddy Prinze, Jr. now resides?

8. A question stolen from a close friend: When Larry Clark saw Nick Stahl in A Man Without a Face, did he immediately think to himself, "Mmm, that looks good!" or is this a sophomoric question?

9. Is there a vague homosexual undercurrent in Eminem, where the homophobia is so vigorous as to be protesting too much? Does Clark provide a canny observation of this in the Brad Renfro/Nick Stahl scenes, or does he overshoot his wad (so to speak)?

10. Does Brad Renfro have any doubt that he is one of the finest, most natural young actors working nowadays? Perhaps he's humble in his pride. If so, good for him. He'll have a long career. If not, maybe that won't even matter so much. He has talent to burn. Are you going to check him out in Terry Zwigoff's upcoming Ghost World? Do you think that movie will be a more perceptive portrayal of America's youth? Is it fair to say that it may even be more depressing because Zwigoff actually seems to understand a few things about suffering?

11. There's an old saying: Some are more fit to inflict pain than to endure it. Does this apply to Larry Clark? Why might this apply to Clark and not to Zwigoff?

12. Is the writer of this article being deliberately obnoxious and trying to pick a fight?

13. Are there some works of cinema worth picking a fight over?

14. Is there such a thing as an irresponsible piece of cinema, or an irresponsible piece of art? Is it fair to place moral judgments on cinema or art? Where is the line drawn between moral judgment and Puritanism? Do these questions become moot if a movie is just plain boring and makes you feel like you were kicked in the balls?

15. If a misanthrope goes to a movie, then walks out and is glad to be among people because the filmmaker's world is so much uglier than the misanthrope's own, has the filmmaker accomplished something?

16. Is it more challenging in today's culture to be disturbing or to be sentimental? Is Steven Spielberg's A.I. more "disturbing" to an audience than Larry Clark's Bully? Discuss.

17. The characters drive around, fuck, listen to music, sit around on the couch, and indulge Bobby Kent as he smashes everyone in sight.

The characters drive around, fuck, listen to music, sit around on the couch, and indulge Bobby Kent as he smashes everyone in sight.

The characters drive around, fuck, listen to music, sit around on the couch, and indulge Bobby Kent as he smashes everyone in sight.

The characters drive around, fuck, listen to music, sit around on the couch, and indulge Bobby Kent as he smashes everyone in sight.

The characters drive around, fuck, listen to music, sit around on the couch, and indulge Bobby Kent as he smashes everyone in sight.

Is this question presenting the routine cycle as a vicious pattern to be observed or understood, or is it merely repetition for it's own sake? The more repetition, the more "fuck," one would assume.

18. Does Question #17 have anything to do with the plot and structure of Bully, or does it call attention to any of the underlying themes? Does it call attention to any of the inherent weaknesses? Is it indulgent? Does making an indulgent question (or movie) give it more weight?

19. It won't hurt, will it?

20. What truths have we uncovered about ourselves? (This question is to be read by Robert Stack or William Shatner with the proper note of sober contemplativeness, followed by a significant pause. Take your time before you answer. But not too long.)

Review published 07.22.2001.

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