Before Harmony Korine recruited Disney’s brightest stars to shed their tops in Spring Breakers, he teamed up with Larry Clark to throw moms into a tailspin with their debaucherous youth exposé Kids. Six years later, Clark’s Bully is an attempt to tackle similar territory. Based on true events, the film follows a group of aimless youth as they screw and fight, try to earn money where they can, and generally lay about until a careless murder brings it all comes to an end.
Bully jumps right in. Teen Beat heartthrob Brad Renfro tells someone on the other side of his cordless phone “I want you to suck my big dick” when his mom calls him down for dinner. No further introduction is necessary to set the scene. These kids dominate their lower middle class suburban America through disaffection and sex appeal. Renfro as Marty and his best friend Bobby (Nick Stahl) work at the sandwich counter at the local grocery store by day, and turn tricks at night. Alli and Lisa (Bijou Phillips and Rachel Miner round out this millennial brat pack) cruise town looking to get some D. Parents’ influence is limited to poking a head into the bedroom in the morning to make sure their kids came home the night before, and by insisting on family dinner, but really nobody gives much of a damn. This is a picture of American Youth, doing drugs, fucking, and fighting without much conscience or supervision.
Instead of drifting in and out of parties and orgies like Kids does, painting a picture of a larger story, as Bully progresses it narrows its focus, honing in on Marty and Bobby’s tumultuous friendship and how that affects Marty’s girlfriend Lisa. The adorable, charismatic, and don’t-give-a-fuck Renfro is mostly unbelievable as Marty, Bobby’s shy doormat. He moons and swoons, let’s Bobby punch him, and even cries at one point, but it seems like an act. As a result, Nick Stahl’s nuanced and conflicted Bobby is more trustworthy. He is played unexpectedly sympathetic; he is believable. Despite increasingly violent, cruel, and erratic behavior toward Marty and Lisa, Stahl plays Bobby as a character conflicted and confused by his own darkness. Unlike the rest of the gang, he is not a type that is recognizable from our own lives. And this specificity recenters the film, transforming it from a portrayal of universal disaffected adolescence to a single story of unique events.
The best parts of the film are also the scariest. Though Bobby comes off as vaguely threatening from the start, he becomes a real threat when he surprises Marty and Lisa in the bedroom, forcing his way into their sex life. It’s gross and mean. And when Lisa, trying to distract him from picking on her, convinces Alli to give Bobby a chance, what starts as sweet flirtation crosses the line into rape and depravity. Bobby is unable to control himself, and is seemingly completely unaware that what his is doing is wrong and hurts others. Even more scary is that throughout, he remains likable and charming. He is a monster but he’s hurting. This dynamic can’t and doesn’t last very long. When Lisa and Marty are finally fed up, the film refocuses, moving to Lisa and Marty as they hatch a plan to eliminate Bobby.
Although this murder plot is ostensibly the point of the film, it is also Bully’s undoing. All of a sudden a handful of new characters show up, including pimply-faced Michael Pitt as drugged up Donnie and Heather (Kelli Garner) whose raver blue, empty head would feel right at home in Spring Breakers. Although the performances are compelling, suddenly there is too much going on. Big personalities offset undeveloped relationships and the camera can’t seem to get enough of each face/crotch/decolletage. Miner and Renfro as the supposed bandleaders are unsteady, thus weakening the explosive moment of violence that should be shocking. It’s disjointed and unsatisfying.
But this unraveling is certainly, in part, deliberate. Miner and Renfro as Lisa and Marty are unsteady bandleaders of an unfocused, confused group of idiots. They don’t know what they are doing, and once it’s done, they can’t react ‘appropriately’. In the final scenes, they seem like they might burst out laughing at any moment. It may be bad acting, but it achieves Clark’s desired effect: incompetence.
The true story of Bobby Kent’s murder involves a bunch of stoner dropouts from Florida who ended up being terrible problem-solvers. What happens in Bully is an attempt to universalize that story and turn it into a cautionary tale: The youth these days are anesthetized sex maniacs who see too much violence on TV, and they make it look good. Although Bully takes place in familiar suburban sprawl with grocery stores, crap diners, poorly manicured lawns all in a row, and parents spouting BS, Bobby Kent is a distinctive case. The true story tells us he was so abusive to his friends, they felt they had no other choice but to kill him. But as he exists in the film, his bullying isn’t so out of control and murder doesn’t seem like the only option. The decision to kill him and the act itself is hazy on purpose, because …disaffected youth! But it’s not enough. Clark did this better with Kids and now, working off of actual events, there are too many unique details for the larger story to land. The result is a film that vacillates back and forth between a good story and a universal one, but never truly commits to either.