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Wednesday, May 7, 2003

More teenage kicks all through the night


Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Larry Clark
Running time: 111 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing

Question: Is teenage America messed-up beyond redemption, adrift in an amoral fog of promiscuous sex and date rape, mindless substance abuse, nutritionless fast food and brutal violence? Judging from the films of Larry Clark -- "Kids," "Another Day In Paradise," and now "Bully" -- the answer would be a resounding "yes."

News photo
Brad Renfro (left) and Michael Pitt in "Bully"

But Clark's take on the situation is far different from your usual conservative holier-than-thou types blithely condemning today's kids. Clark may be 57, but on some fundamental level he's still that f***ed-up, wasted teen, making bad choices and having fun, albeit no longer ignorant of the price that will have to be paid.

Clark's own dissolute youth is well-documented -- both in his own photo book of '70s teen junkies and hustlers, "Tulsa," and in Gus Van Sant's "Drugstore Cowboy," which was loosely based on Clark's misadventures -- and while he may be off the crystal meth these days, he seems to be still living the wild life vicariously through his films.

"Bully" is of a kind with his previous work, notably "Kids," although this time the action is located in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and it's based on a true story of high-school murder and other sordid intrigues. For a portrait of Generation Eminem, it's a fairly chilling one, but also riddled with some unexpectedly wicked laughs. Try the moment where one put-upon mom, venting at the gaggle of feral kids congregating in her daughter's bedroom -- where they are screwing, doing coke and, oh yeah, plotting a murder -- gripes that "you don't do anything all day, you eat us out of house and home . . . you know how that makes us feel?" One perfectly timed stoned pause later, a red-eyed kid replies: "Mad?"

Ouch. Clark's "Bully" perfectly captures the realm of freedom that teens carve out for themselves, through cars and closed bedroom doors, beaches and malls (never mind the Internet) -- all little bastions of adult-free irresponsibility. Except in the case of "Bully" -- like other wasted youth pics from "Rebel Without A Cause" straight down through "River's Edge" -- things soon spin out of control.

"Bully" pulls its focus in tight on high-school friends Marty (Brad Renfro) and Bobby (Nick Stahl). The pair have been friends since childhood; they surf the same beaches, McJob at the same fast-food counter, and even share the same girls . . . though not always willingly, in the case of Marty, who finds himself physically and emotionally dominated by the unpredictably violent Bobby.

Bobby is, as more than one character in the film puts it, "an asshole," no ifs or buts about it. He thinks nothing of punching Marty in the face -- hard -- while he's driving a car, for some trivial offense, or pimping his friend's ass at gay strip clubs to earn some easy cash. (Indeed, the relationship between the two is rife with latent sado-homo undertones.) He's the type of guy who'll take a girl he just met, wild-child Ali (Bijou Philips), and slam her head into his lap, sneering "welcome to the party, bitch." He'll even punch out Marty, throw him out of bed, and rape his new girlfriend, Lisa (Rachel Miner), like it's no big deal.

Lisa hits upon a pretty good solution to their common problem: let's kill the bastard, she suggests, and it doesn't take much convincing before everyone agrees.

What follows is one of the most amusingly poorly-planned homicides in the history of film: Lisa and Ali enlist the help of their airhead teen-hooker friend Heather (Kelli Garner), Ali's perpetually stoned boyfriend Donny (Michael Pitt), supposed gangbanger Kaufman (Leo Fitzpatrick), and Lisa's nerdy brother, Derek (Daniel Franzese). A particularly choice moment comes when the group, most of them tripping on acid, are hanging out in a driveway, noisily discussing whether to stab, bludgeon or shoot Bobby to death, when Marty's mom sticks her head out the door and asks, "Can I get you kids anything?"

It's this parental obliviousness and absence in their children's lives that Clark chooses to point the finger at. Well, maybe in interviews more than the film itself; Clark's not a very convincing moralist. If anything -- and this is a frequent criticism of his work -- he's more interested in glamourizing bad boys and girls, with the moral aspect just so much of an excuse to shoot rough and raw teen sex.

As in "Kids," there's plenty of that here: Rachel Miner plays half her scenes in the nude, and Bijou Philips -- aside from a couple of blatant crotch shots -- gets to shag Michael Pitt, complete with candle wax. The camera lingers on the buff bodies of the male leads as well; indeed, one wonders how jocky Brad Renfro could be the passive victim of any bully.

The problem here is that Clark claims to be depicting the harsh reality of today's youth, while simultaneously prettifying it. The real Marty was a lot scrawnier, while the real Lisa was a bit overweight, but while that fact may have had a lot to do with the dynamics of what went down, misfit kids have been ditched in favor of "Beverly Hills 90210" perfection.

Clark may be making a film that kids will actually watch, speaking to them in the visual vocabulary they'll buy. Or maybe he's guilty of the same CK-style sexualization of teenagers that's led to the human damage on display here. Take your pick. But preachy or prurient, Clark's "Bully" still has its finger on the pulse of a generation that's adopted gangsta rap as a blueprint for living. As Ali tells Lisa, "It's all about attitude," and "Bully" certainly boasts plenty of that.

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