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Movie Review: Bully – Disaffected Youth for a Modern Generation

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There are a lot of movies that tell "true stories". I'm not going to go on a rant about the subjectivity of truth and the unreliable nature of the claim to be able to tell a true story at all in the first place. Fiction is always fiction and the truth is always subjective. There is an actual murder behind all this, though, committed in 1993 in Florida. Jim Schutze's book Bully: A True Story of High School Revenge is supposed to be well researched, something I can't really make any comments about, having not read it.

The movie isn't shy about what it wants to convey. The opening sequence tells you basically everything you need to keep in mind for this to make sense. After a glide over the Florida landscape we find ourselves on a closeup of Marty (Brad Renfro) talking dirty over the phone. If you think even for a second that this is something he enjoys, the blank and slightly contemptuous look on his face will cure you of that illusion. He stops when his mother calls him to tell him it's dinner time and his expression changes to one of furtive shame. And that sets the tone.

The bully who gives this movie its title is Bobby (Nick Stahl). The relationship between Bobby and Marty (Brad Renfro) is anything but healthy. Bobby beats and bullies Marty in a way that actually makes your stomach turn. It's hard to understand why anyone would put up with being treated that way, but at one point Marty says that Bobby's always been like that, that they've known each other practically since they were born. Bobby also tells Marty on several separate occasions that he's his best friend, as if that excuses everything. It's a sadistic, co-dependent relationship with sexual overtones and it makes a twisted kind of sense in context.

Bobby and Marty meet Ali (Bijou Phillips) and Lisa (Rachel Miner) at the sandwich shop where they work. Marty and Lisa form an actual relationship that quickly becomes very serious. Lisa gets pregnant in what seems like no time at all and she falls head over heels in a very Romeo and Juliet, doomed and tragic kind of way. Bobby behaves badly enough that it angers Lisa to the point where she wants to kill him.

A cabal of Marty and Lisa's friends start planning the killing. These include Ali (Bijou Phillips), Donny (Michael Pitt), Heather (Kelli Garner), and Cousin Derek (Daniel Franzese). They enlist the help of The Hitman (Leo Fitzpatrick) who is supposed to be a real life gangster.

That conversation is downright painful to watch. As a spectator you know right from the first moment the plan takes rudimentary form that it's not going to end well for anyone. Still, they manage to kill Bobby and the fallout is every bit as bad as you might expect.

Each of the participants falls apart in their own way and two of them wind up telling the authorities which leads to all of them being charged with the murder. The final scenes of the movie show the courtroom and what their respective sentences are.

There are some interesting questions in all this. This is not a story that's simple to relate to from a moral point of view. When the camera pans out over the parents and families of the kids on the stand you see their shocked and dismayed faces and the tagline for the movie — "It's 4 a.m… do you know where your kids are?" — suddenly makes perfect sense.

The main protagonists are young enough that there should be some kind of parental influence on their lives still, but that is sadly lacking the whole way through. These kids live in a reality of their own making, completely unmoored from anything that even vaguely resembles consequences of their actions. They work McJobs and spend the rest of their time drinking, using drugs, and having sex. The critique that the director is being gratuitous is probably not entirely fair, seeing as how it's still shocking that all this is showed so blatantly.

There's a lot of cultural baggage surrounding the notion that childhood is a time of innocence and preadolescence and adolescence sort of rides on the coattails of that. But the notion of innocence is more one of wishful thinking and some strange reminiscence from romanticism. This is more Lord of the Flies than Anne of Green Gables.

In his dying moments, Bobby is every bit the child, the innocent victim, begging for his life in a broken young boy's voice. That, and the clumsy slaughter, actually momentarily shifts your sympathy so that you feel sorry for him. He may be a borderline psychopath and a rapist but someone somewhere along the line should have been able to help him before things got this badly out of hand.

The lack of a moral baseline in these kids' lives is shown throughout in a way that actually gives the director the artistic licence to show nubile naked young bodies the way he chooses to do without it being wholly gratuitous.

The spectator's gaze is brought into question here. As far as I can tell the imagery isn't supposed to titillate. That being said, showing instead of telling will surely influence what attitude the viewer is supposed to take to all this.

The young cast gives excellent performances throughout. The way they handle the interaction is believable in a wholly unreal way. The interaction between Marty and Bobby is painful to watch, but then so is the love story between Lisa and Marty. Even the scenes between Bobby and his father have an uncomfortable undertone that can't be easily categorized. There's pressure there, but most of it is just inferred.

All in all this is not easy to watch, or comfortable. The sound track adds to the hard base line of it all by blasting rap music, the dialogue is rife with invectives and there's an undercurrent of alienated apathy to the interactions that is believable enough to be disturbing. This is a good depiction of disaffected youth for a modern generation and no matter how disjointed the telling might feel it's well worth watching.

Bully (2001), directed by Larry Clark, stars Brad Renfro (Marty), Nick Stahl (Bobby), Bijou Phillips (Ali), Rachel Miner (Lisa), Michael Pitt (Donny), Leo Fitzpatrick (The Hitman), Kelli Garner (Heather), Daniel Franzese (Cousin Derek), Natalie Paulding (Claudia).

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