Image B+ Sound B+ Extras C+
starring Brad Renfro, Bijou Phillips, Rachel Miner, Michael Pitt
screenplay by Zachary Long & Roger Pullis, based on the book by Jim Schutze
directed by Larry Clark
by Bill Chambers An authority figure delivers the definitive line of dialogue of Bully, Larry Clark's quasi-sequel to his own hotly-contested Kids: "I don't know what you're up to. I don't think I want to know." Well, Clark insists on letting us know. Often accused, even with only three motion pictures under his belt, of over-sensationalizing already sensational material, he's hardly the next Oliver Stone. He may be something of an interfering observer, but he's not a conspiracy proselytizer running with scissors down the hallway. Where Stone drew slave parallels to football in Any Given Sunday by intercutting clips from Ben-Hur, Clark makes more organic shock statements. He can be tactless, sure. Can't we all?
The scene from Bully that's causing a ruckus features the hot teen mom played by (21-year-old) Bijou Phillips talking on the phone in a salon while getting a pedicure. As her conversation winds down, we get a leering close-up of her crotch. As the vantage point of the pedicurist, it's not an entirely illogical insert, and with Phillips sitting there spread-eagle, the shot has overtones of the audience's telepathic projection. If Larry Clark were younger (he's 58), cleaner (he spent most of post-production on Another Day in Paradise in rehab), and not a professional chronicler of teenagers (numerous acclaimed photo essays about the youth scene got him a movie career in the first place), Bully would've surely turned out different, but do his age and experiences mean he's a dirty old man, or is he onto us and exposing our hypocritical indignation? Hell, if hatchling American Pie directors the Weitz brothers were Clark's age, they probably still would've emerged unscathed from showing Shannon Elizabeth nude for the duration of a genre-cushioned sequence that is, I dare say, less forgivable than Bully at its most pornographic. Think about it: A guy asks a girl (Elizabeth) whose English isn't so good over to his house and, knowing she'll need to change clothing once she arrives, surreptitiously videotapes her getting undressed and enables his friends to watch via the Internet--and we're cued to not only be titillated by this, but also root for things to go off without a hitch.
What continues to appall me about Bully is but a by-product of the film: Its raw depiction of sex has overshadowed the incendiary act of violence around which the whole thing orbits. That I am forced to address a glimpse of pubic hair ahead of a gruesome murder officially confirms the reversal of western society's hedonistic poles, and casts a doubtful shadow over my own sexually curious teen years. I encountered no more over-the-top knee-jerk reaction than these odious reader comments Dave Poland published last summer:
"'Bully' is perverted for no reason I could figure out except to satisfy Mr. Clark's old man obsession with young people's bodies. He seems to leer on the actors for no reason at all and even the younger, often shirtless, boys like Marty's brother came across as victims of some kind of unseemly voyeurism and I felt dirty for being a part of it. I'm about as far away from being a prude as you can [sic] but this movie just felt wrong."
Bully takes place in Florida, in the middle of summer. To this self-declared non-prude (Poland nicknamed him "Not Fester"), I say, you expect a boy to keep his shirt on in the punishing Florida heat so you'll feel less voyeuristic? Because the DVD commentary on Another Day in Paradise indicates that Steven Spielberg is the bane of Clark's existence, I wonder how squirmy the idiotic Not Fester got when a gaggle of half-naked pre-adolescents ogled Haley Joel Osment in Spielberg's recent A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Not Fester's common alloy of anatomical shame and political paranoia will soon castrate artistic expression altogether.
Based on a true story but racially homogenizing the participants involved (imagine if the title character were the only minority in the film, with Clark already in this much trouble), Bully stars the charismatic Seth Green-David Spade fusion Nick Stahl as the abusive, college-bound best friend of spacey surfer Marty (co-producer Brad Renfro, in a touching performance). Marty's girlfriend, Lisa (ex-Mrs. Macaulay Culkin Rachel Miner), grows tired of the perennially-looming black cloud that is Stahl's volatile Bobby and rallies the troops to kill him. She's also pregnant with either Marty or Bobby's child (the latter would be by rape), and seems to be operating under the delusion that Bobby's death would rule him out as the biological father. The protagonists' relentless, veracious witlessness is hopefully more unsettling than the film's explicit nature; in the case of the stoners, we sense a total façade, and wonder whether they ever actually inhale. (Michael Pitt's performance is one rife with subtext in that regard, yet also so off-putting as to discourage repeat viewings.) Like Clark's Kids, the crackling conversation piece that is Bully will serve parents better than it does their offspring, because it's hard see the forest through the trees. Have I mentioned that Bobby, however repellent, is in many ways the film's most sympathetic character? See it with an open mind.
The "Theatrical Version" banner on the back cover of Lions Gate/Trimark's DVD release of Bully may confuse consumers as to whether the film contained therein is uncut. It is: Remember that the film was exhibited in moviehouses last summer sans MPAA rating. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer on the disc is good but not great, with overbalanced whites turning grain into noise. Colour rendering is superb, though, and the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix lets the percussion-heavy music cues breathe. (The song score is isolated on a separate stereo track.)
When you first insert the DVD, an ad to purchase the soundtrack CD from a 1-800 number pops up. Extras proper include a five-minute on-set interview with Larry Clark in which he doles out compliments to every member of his cast (although he's reticent when it comes to Phillips, who has lately adopted the position in the press that Clark exploited her); six segments of interviews, each featuring most or all of the main actors and serious in tone except when the topic of auditioning for Clark arises (a running gag from which Renfro steered clear); mugshots of the real-life culprits; and Bully's provocative theatrical trailer. Originally published: February 18, 2002.