Bully (2001)
Directed by Larry Clark

Artistic Value: * * * ½
Entertainment Value: * * * *

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Larry Clark's Bully, despite its unremitting realism, is a deeply disturbing film that is able to arouse a profound sense of tragedy in the viewer.

Marty (Brad Renfro), a teenaged high school dropout living in a suburb in Florida, is constantly bullied by his best friend Bobby (Nick Stahl). When Marty meets Lisa (Rachel Miner) and begins a relationship with her, Bobby not only continues to abuse his friend, but rapes both Lisa and her best friend Ali (Bijou Phillips). Quickly tiring of such treatment, Lisa suggests to Marty that they murder Bobby. Soon thereafter, a number of the teenaged friends and acquaintances of the two become involved in their plot, and the group lures Bobby to an isolated beach where they kill him.

Extreme realism rarely works particularly well in film. More often than not, the director who indulges in such an approach, instead of arousing any profound emotions in the viewer, gives the story he is telling a sense of manipulative falsity. Larry Clark does attempt to infuse Bully with an almost documentary-like feel, but, somehow, his efforts actually work. While the movie is hardly a masterpiece, it is generally well made and genuinely affecting.

By crafting a number of deeply flawed and surprisingly engaging individuals, who are able to draw the viewer into their lives, Clark is able to arouse a sense both of the joys and the pains of adolescence. Few of the director's protagonists have bright futures ahead of them, except for Bobby, who comes from an affluent family and who plans to attend college, and most do not appear to fit into the mainstream of society. Because their failings are generally skillfully delineated, each of the characters has a sense of veracity, which, in turn, makes the viewer feel as though he knows him as a person. Even the more tangential members of the group are, on the whole, well presented. Of all the movie's characters, only Bobby is not successfully realized. While his personality is developed more extensively than are those of several of the other protagonists, the director so emphasizes his cruelty that he emerges as more of an overdone, villainous caricature than a real person. Despite this one misstep, Clark's characters are generally effectively brought to life.

Even the film's visual style assists in the evocation of the world in which many adolescents live. Clark has frequently been criticized for the interest he shows in filming the nude or scantily clad bodies of his actresses, but, in fact, the inclusion of such shots complements the film. The director's fascination with the bodies of his actors helps, for much of the duration of the movie, to emphasize both the prominent voyeurism and extreme exuberance that are such important parts of adolescent sexuality. The ardent glee of persons who are eager to explore their sexual desires, who are new to those experiences, and who, as a consequence, are completely thrilled by them are made vibrantly manifest by the director so that the viewer is able to feel at least something of the excitement of own his initiation into the world of sexuality. Instead of evoking a sustained sense of impetuous happiness, however, this awareness of the delights of the physical world, which is featured so prominently in a large part of the movie, adds, by way of contrast, to the feelings of terrible tragedy which are ultimately aroused.

Because the viewer is so involved with the film's characters, he is made to feel sorrow not only as a consequence of Bobby's savage and painful death, but also because he sees how a moment's foolishness completely devastates the lives of all the persons who killed him. Whatever their faults, none of these individuals are presented as being innately cruel or violent. In fact, the viewer is made to feel genuinely sorry for them even before they have set out to destroy themselves. The ways in which Bobby humiliates and victimizes Marty, Lisa, Ali, and others is often truly disturbing. Occasionally, Clark does go a little too far and gives way to melodrama, but, on the whole, he is able to make the viewer feel a deep sadness for his characters.

The exceptional performances of the young actors all enhance this sense of sorrow. Each of the players gives such a feeling of truth to his character, and to the whole of the movie, that the viewer is constantly fascinated by and involved in their lives. While I am not a great admirer of naturalistic acting styles, I still must concede that the young performers in Bully do acquit themselves well.

Despite its real virtues, the film is weakened by a number of flaws. Perhaps the worst of these are the director's fondness for preaching and his preference for unsubtle irony. Clark will frequently hammer home some point with such a lack of finesse that the viewer may actually smile at his clumsiness. For instance, at one point, he goes to such great lengths to show just how dysfunctional the family life of one of his protagonists is that, in doing so, he is more likely to annoy or amuse the viewer than to touch him .

While the movie does contain a number of irritating faults and is never realized with any particular aesthetic sensitivity, Bully is still remarkably affecting. It is certainly worth seeing.

Review by Keith Allen

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