It’s hard to miss the moment in Bully when director Larry Clark loses his credibility as a filmmaker while ostensibly telling an important story. During a scene involving a phone conversation between two teenage girls, Clark locks his camera for a few seconds, not on the faces of either of the speakers, nor on some significant item in the room. Instead, he plants the lens between actress Bijou Phillips’ legs and captures her cutoffs-clad crotch in glorious close-up. No particular reason—just a 12-foot-high pubic region. Forget “I see London, I see France”—how about “I see the entire European Union?”
If you’ve followed Clark’s career, it should come as no surprise to find him obsessing over smooth young flesh. From his early days as a proto-heroin chic photographer capturing naked teens with guns and drugs, Clark graduated to the ultra-controversial 1995 film Kids. A story of youths running wild in the streets of contemporary New York with nary an adult in sight, Kids was supposed to be a “wakeup call to the world,” as the New York Times famously and hyperbolically called it. More often, it felt like Clark’s maddeningly monotonous attempt to shove our faces in the idea that lots of teens have irresponsible sex and get high, to which one could only add a chorus of, “No shit?”
Clark’s instincts are those of a bad-boy provocateur rather than those of a storyteller, and he’s got another provocative story on his hands in Bully. Based on Jim Schutze’s book about a true 1993 crime, Bully relates the tale of a group of suburban Florida teens under the thumb of a sadistic little thug named Bobby Kent (Nick Stahl). Bobby’s lifelong best friend Marty (Brad Renfro) has been taunted and beaten by Bobby since grade school; Marty’s girlfriend Lisa (Rachel Miner) and Lisa’s friend Ali (Phillips) know Bobby as a sexual sadist and rapist. So why not just get a bunch of pals together and kill Bobby? Never mind that several of them have never even met Bobby, and would be too dope-addled to recognize him even if they had. Hell, it’s something to do.
Clark and his screenwriters Zachary Long and Roger Pullis take some liberties with the facts of the case—making the Iranian-American Bobby white, for example, and casting the coltish Miner as the dumpy Lisa—but Bully as a film is more interested in the atmosphere than the facts. While the question behind Bully is essentially the same question asked about every incident of teen violence in the post-Columbine era—“How could this have happened?”—Clark opts to answer it primarily by observation rather than analysis. As a fly-on-the-wall pseudo-documentarian, Clark shows an instinctive sense for the rhythms of these kids’ words and lives. What he uncovers is a generation with too damned much time on its hands and a moral sensibility arrested at the third-grade level of whether or not a given action will get them in trouble.
The dialogue and the scary naturalism of the performances (most notably by Miner and Kids alum Leo Fitzpatrick) gives much of Bully the veneer of honest-if-ugly cinema verité. Then Clark decides to assert his “vision.” Eventually, he does break out with a little social diagnosis, and—surprise surprise—finds all the usual suspects to blame for what’s wrong with the crazy kids these days. With its ham-fisted inclusion of explicit music lyrics, violent video games and clueless parents, Bully plays like a contemporary update of the juvenile delinquent melodramas of a bygone era—Reefer Madness with delusions of art house cachet.
It gets even more maddening when Clark tries to play Scorsese. Every time he steps away from his first-person perspective for something more obviously cinematic, he crushes the moment under a hob-nailed boot. He spins the camera around a circle of his characters as they plot Bobby’s murder; he lingers on the image of a video game character turned into an infant. And yes, he gives Bijou Phillips’ pubes eye-popping attention.
The hard truth is, whatever other artistic credentials he may bring to the table from his career as an award-winning photographer, Larry Clark is a lousy film director. He’s got no sense for how to craft his snippets of teen life into a story, nor does he understand when to pull back or insinuate rather than make a scene as drawn-out and graphic as possible. There’s no excuse for the number of times he opts for long shots of humping and thrusting bodies when a close-up of a character’s face would have been more appropriate, except that Clark never met a shot of humping and thrusting bodies he didn’t like.
The most frustrating thing about Bully is that there’s so much raw intensity to the presentation, you can almost see a brilliantly disturbing thriller emerging. The characters prove to be all the story the film has going for it, and they’re almost enough—hollow-eyed layabouts who treat death with the same shrug of indifference as everything else in their lives. But characters of that kind were also compelling 15 years ago when Tim Hunter made River’s Edge, and Hunter managed to capture the same vibe without reveling in gaudy excess. Larry Clark isn’t about to let the essence of his story get in the way of his own gaudy excesses—not when there’s a perfectly good crotch waiting for its close-up.
Bully (NR) HH Directed by Larry Clark. Starring Brad Renfro, Rachel Miner and Nick Stahl.