Bully bares all, but only skin deep

Despite its art-house venue and its “alternative” director, Bully, starring Brad Renfro and Rachel Miner, is not a movie about “high school revenge” gone awry, or even a scathing insight into the rotten core of middle-class America. This movie is not much more than an excuse for making soft-core porn. It’s also about why dumb people should not try to commit murder.

It’s hard to believe that this lesson was actually director Larry Clark’s (Kids), main point in making this film. But whatever the point is, it’s overshadowed by the fact that every teenage girl in this movie undresses herself in this movie more than once. In some films, this could be construed as “realism” or “plot development,” but there is a point in Bully where the scenes begin to seem simply superfluous, verging upon exploitation. I am not the only reviewer to come away from the movie with this impression. New York Times critic A. O. Scott said that calling Clark a pornographer would be “an insult to honest smut-peddlers, because at least they treat their subjects with more respect than Clark does.”

Perhaps that is going too far, but when Clark wants to show that Rachel Miner’s character is pregnant, he does not need to show her actually taking a pregnancy test in the bathroom. Naked, no less.

The gist of the plot is that Marty (Brad Renfro) is a high school dropout whose best friend Bobby (Nick Stahl) is, well, a bully. Bobby abuses Marty all the time, including forcing him to have phone sex conversations with old gay men (incidentally, another section of the movie which seem to contribute not at all to the plot). One day at work they meet up with Ali (Bijou Phillips) and Lisa (Rachel Miner, whose greatest career move before making this picture was getting married to former child star Macauley Culkin) and hit it off.

Or rather, Lisa ends up dating Marty, Bobby ends up raping her and Ali, Lisa gets pregnant with Marty’s baby, and Marty finally seems to realize that Bobby isn’t truly best-friend material.

Lisa then takes on a Lady Macbeth-type role, asserting that the best way of handling the Bobby issue is to kill him. They collect some more friends and acquaintances, one of who is a hit man (Leo Fitzpatrick) and begin plotting the murder.

For a true story, this could well have become a soap opera, but Clark does have the gift of not glamorizing what is happening. His direction is right-on, and none of the film’s elements seem stylized or overly rehearsed. His sometimes-unnerving use of close-ups leaves the actors with little space to move, giving the film even more of a raw feel. A corollary to this effect, though, is his need to show the numerous sex scenes with some detail. There does exist, though, a clear line between mainstream cinema and soft-core porn, a line which Clark chooses to ignore.

Nevertheless, Clark manages to garner very good performances from his cast. Renfro and Stahl play off each other well, but it is Renfro who gives the best performance overall.

As the one who originally conceives of the murder, Miner’s character is one of the most in focus throughout the movie. Although overall, her acting is good, one of her limitations is emphasized by Clark’s tendencies to focus on her face. She seems to make the same face repetitively: that of raising her right eyebrow to show that she is thinking or something.

Also, Miner and Bijou Phillips look quite a bit younger than their 21 years of age, and since their bodies are ‘in evidence’ often in the film, this may upset some viewers.                          Â

Despite Clark’s somewhat ill-advised choices concerning the amount of skin being shown onscreen, it is clear what he meant to do with this true story. He wants to blame the poor ethics and morals of today’s youth for the ease in which they decided that murder would be the best idea to get rid of their nemesis, but what ends up being shown more vividly in the film is the stupidity of these kids.

Before they actually set out to commit the deed with some degree of planning, they consider shooting him, and are stopped only at the last minute when they remember that the bullet can be traced back to the gun. They only remember this when reminded by their friend the hitman. The kids even consider trying to do a drive-by because “police would suspect a gang thing.”

People complain all the time that we live in a TV-driven society, but it seems like anyone who watches TV would know how to plan a better murder. They’d get caught, of course, but they would still be better than these kids. Despite this idiocy, these characters do have the potential for depth. They are not cardboard cut-outs the type of which one would imagine are the root of a decaying society.

But when the characters begin to seem interesting, Clark tends to either dumb them down or focus the camera on their breasts. One could easily point to Clark as an example of how we as a society nowadays have less attention span than we should.

The inner lives or pasts of the characters aren’t really explored – we are just shown what they are doing now. We don’t know why Marty is a dropout, when he seems to come from a fairly stable family environment in a middle-class neighborhood. We don’t know how Ali got married. We do, however, get to see them naked. It doesn’t make a heck of a lot of sense.

Bully could have been better if Clark had only considered the artistic value of his controversial choices. This is the first time I’m criticizing a movie for having too much nudity, and it will probably be the last, so pay attention. Clark assembled a talented cast and picked an interesting story to tell, but he did not do so in a manner that is comfortable for everyone.

Even if his goal is to show the “naked truth” (no pun intended), he may be pushing the envelope, and that can severely limit a film’s audience – which is unfortunate, because this could have been interesting social commentary rather than soft-core porn.

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