Combustible Celluloid
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With: Brad Renfro, Rachel Miner, Nick Stahl, Bijou Phillips, Michael Pitt, Leo Fitzpatrick
Written by: Zachary Long and Roger Pullis, based on the novel by Jim Schutze
Directed by: Larry Clark
MPAA Rating: Not rated, but recommended for mature audiences
Running Time: 109
Date: 06/15/2001

Bully (2001)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Raging 'Bully'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Former photographer Larry Clark left scars on movie screens in 1995 with his astonishing, unforgettable Kids, written by Harmony Korine. A few years later, he toned himself down, taking on a generic crime movie, Another Day in Paradise, and spicing it up with a few doses of meanness and acid, plus a fiery performance by James Woods. For his third film, Bully, which opens today at the Lumiere, he finds space in-between.

Bully supposedly tells a true story, or, more specifically, it's based on a book (by Jim Schutze) that supposedly tells a true story. But a new website argues that the author of the book didn't bother to conduct any research, and that the book is mostly hearsay. Fictional or not though, Bully the film offers an undiluted look at bored, lifeless teens who can't quite grasp the difference between their small, hazy worlds and the bigger, real world.

Bully focuses on two Florida teens, a spoiled, scholarly type named Bobby (Nick Stahl) who takes great joy in bossing around and beating up his best friend, a slovenly dropout ex-surfer named Marty (Brad Renfro). Marty manages to find himself a girlfriend, the shy Lisa (Rachel Miner), whose obvious low self-esteem leads her to cling to Marty, claiming after one of their painful-looking sex bouts that "I love you so much I can't stand it." Their friends, including Ali (Bijou Phillips), Donny (Michael Pitt), Heather (Kelli Garner), and Derek (Daniel Franzese), are all unemployed layabouts, passing the time smoking dope, playing video games, driving around, and having sex.

After witnessing one too many fights between Bobby and her boyfriend (many of them over issues of homosexuality), Lisa vows to kill him. She seems serious, but doesn't seem to realize what a killing actually entails. Her first plan goes awry when she realizes that the bullet will be traced back to her mother's gun, so she simply arranges for her friends to gang up on Bobby, stabbing him with fishing knives and beating him with baseball bats. They even go so far as to "hire" a "hitman" (Leo Fitzpatrick from Kids) to help.

The sheer boredom and malaise of these kids is perhaps the most startling thing about Bully, more so than the killing itself. When a young boy asks Marty why he gave up surfing, Marty responds, "I don't know. No reason." And whereas Kids gut-punched us with a pseudo-killing that could very likely happen in our hometowns, not many American kids will actually plan and pull of a killing. So Bully seems easier to take as a result.

Yet Clark trains the same kind of reality camera on the Bully kids as he did the Kids kids, more stylized than a handheld documentary-cam. One scene spins the camera around and around, catching glimpses of the empty faces trying to understand the concept of murder. In another, Clark's camera drifts down to Bijou Phillip's crotch for no reason. Mostly though, Clark concentrates on being unobtrusive, letting us eavesdrop without calling attention to himself. The result is that these astonishing, pathetic kids are so true that we believe them.

The irony that the murder victim is the only one of the kids with a future is not lost on the movie, either. With his bullying streak, bossiness, and gift for ass-kissing, Bobby was sure to go far in this world. (He earns money by picking up on gays at sex clubs, making illegal porn videos, and selling them.) This message becomes far more frightening than any other the movie could conjure up. Would one Bobby unleashed on the world be better or worse than an army of listless, aimless nothings?

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