Directed by Larry Clarke, starring Brad Renfro, Bijou Phillips, Rachel Miner, Michael Pitt, Kelli Garner, Leo Fitzpatrick and Nick Stahl.
Based on a real-life incident in Florida in 1993, 'Bully' sees photographer-turned-director Larry Clark returning to the theme of drugs, sex and violence, once more in the context of some deeply disillusioned and troubled teenagers.
Bobby Kent (Stahl) and Marty Puccio (Renfro) have been friends since they were five. But this is a 'friendship' which owes nothing to the true meaning of the word. Bobby is the bully of the film's title, subjecting Marty to a litany of physical and emotional abuse and humiliation. This anti-social behaviour doesn't just stop with Marty; Bobby also rapes Marty's girlfriend Lisa (Miner) and her friend Ali (Phillips), while his vitriolic spleen is meted out to all and sundry. His violent mood swings towards Marty are portrayed as a reaction to his own homosexuality – which manifests itself in forcing Marty to perform gay phone sex and to dance for money in gay strip joints. Bobby projects his own sexual insecurities on to Marty, taunting him, beating him, but then a few seconds later hugs him and tells him he's his best friend.
It is this warped behaviour which ultimately compels Marty, Lisa, Ali and some other whacked-out teenagers towards the movie's violent and shocking coda – the brutal murder of Bobby. Yet 'Bully' doesn't just frame the aberrant conduct of a group of affluent, aimless and permanently doped-up teenagers in a cause-and-effect type scenario; it is a relentlessly bleak and unflinching exposé of a whole generational culture, which society either refuses to acknowledge, or finds it easier to neglect.
The problem with the whole thing is Clark's insistence on showing numerous scenes of graphic sex and substance abuse. We know these kids have long ago left virgin highway, we know the casual way in which they abuse drugs and we know they are a million miles from having the emotional maturity to deal with adult experiences; we simply don't need so many long, lingering shots of naked, bruised teenagers and their strung-out antics. Exploitation, voyeurism and all that?
Ultimately the most disturbing thing about the film is the way it depicts the teens as seeing no way of dealing with Bobby, other than to kill him. With the amount of money and drugs available to these teenagers inversely proportional to the measure of benevolent guidance in their lives, the film is more of an indictment of parents in the United States than of the teenagers. But then again, Clark himself has always admitted that he blames parents for everything.
Perhaps the most accomplished aspect of 'Bully' is the performances of the young actors on show. And yet as good as they all are, it strikes you that Clark got mixed up in the casting of Stahl and Renfro. The latter simply doesn't look like a victim, and while he does okay as the tormented Marty, it seemed the more obvious choice to have Renfro as the bullying Bobby and Stahl as Marty. Elsewhere, Rachel Miner is outstanding as the infatuated, completely spaced out Lisa, her eyes glistening at the thought of a world without Bobby, yet betraying a complete innocence of the brutality and consequences of the deed which will make that world a reality.
'Bully' demands attention for the way in which it forces us to watch and digest a dark slice of American society. And because it's based on actual events, its digestion is made all the more unsavoury. American beauty this ain't.