Bully (18)

Too close to the kids for comfort
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The Independent Culture

Seven years ago kids, the first film by photographer Larry Clark, revealed that American teenagers were taking drugs, committing crime and having unprotected sex – a possibility that, judging by the film's instant notoriety, no one had previously considered. Clark's new film, Bully, takes those activities for granted, as its young protagonists graduate to higher stakes – prostitution, porn and murder. Kids was described by one critic as "a wake-up call for America" – a phrase used in its marketing, conveniently allaying any suspicion that the film was sensationalistic or exploitative. Bully is described in its press kit in similar terms: "This movie is not just for kids – most importantly, it's for parents." It's hard to say, though, whom Bully is really intended for, or what its moral intention is. The more elusive a film's moral position, especially when dealing with contentious subject matter, the more readily we assume it is complex or challenging. But any such uncertainty in Bully seems less to do with complexity, more with flawed design.

Ostensibly Bully is a dramatisation, scratchy and vérité-ish, of the 1993 murder of a Florida teenager by a group of his peers. More generally, however, Bully examines the louche lifestyle of young middle-class Floridians. Spoilt, cocky Bobby (Nick Stahl) hangs out with Marty (Brad Renfro), a sullen surfer whom he punches in the head at the slightest provocation, and whom he forces to strip onstage at a gay club; despite all this, Marty can't tear himself from Bobby's side. But the film never gets near exploring the boys' sado-masochistic co-dependency; it's more interested in their leisure activities and cavalier sense of romantic etiquette. "Welcome to the party, bitch!" snarls Bobby, shoving his date's head into his crotch.

Much of Bully's world is governed by social codes we recognise from kids. The sex is steeped in boredom and sweat, the drugs are in free supply, and the soundtrack trembles to rap and the whirr of video games. But matters turn darker when Marty's girlfriend Lisa (Rachel Miner) talks a group of her addled friends into helping her kill Bobby. They hire more experienced muscle to help out – a hitman played by Leo Fitzpatrick, the gangling "virgin surgeon" of kids, now bulked out and imparting an odd gravitas as the one participant who remotely senses the seriousness of the affair.

Lisa starts her vendetta fired by something like love, but soon the killing, planned over Cokes in Pizza Hut, becomes an affectless game. It has no real weight for them because they lack the language to give it meaning. After the event, Lisa confesses to a friend, exhilarated as if describing a hot date: "The whole thing was, like, totally, totally extreme." (The film comes close to using such numbed lingo for easy laughs.) While parents were absent in kids, they figure heavily here: Bobby's sneering, overbearing father (Edward Amatrudo) is clearly marked as the root cause of his son's disturbance. The clear message is that corruption is handed down through generations – the vacant, damaged Heather (Kelli Garner) narrates a murder in her family, tittering as she reaches the ghastly climax. The film makes its intentions plain when Clark cuts in a montage of teenage and adult faces, as if to remind us that no one is innocent. (Clark has no qualms about over-explicitness: one child wears a T-shirt that reads "Dare – to resist drugs and violence".) The question, however, is whether Clark is the right director to carry the weight of this material. Kids, starring Clark's own skateboarder discoveries, was very much an extension of his photo albums, giving narrative shape to his fascination with teenage wildlife. Bully, however, began with a script, credited to Zachary Long and Roger Pullis, being offered to the director of kids – a crucial difference. And in Bully, Clark uses young professional actors – former child star Renfro, Stahl from In the Bedroom, and Bijou Phillips, a specialist in disaffected teen-slut roles (eg James Toback's Black and White).

Clark has a formidable talent for getting his cast to lower the barriers and lose any sense of artifice – Miner in particular is intense and changeable, crackling with disturbance beneath the ingénue surface. Yet you suspect that his actors are knowingly moving into territory mapped out by kids, obligingly performing like teenagers in a Larry Clark film. Arguably, the Clark style has been superimposed on a script that could have used a more detached approach. The loose rhythm, quasi-documentary graininess and restlessly funky soundtrack all prevent us from adopting any analytical distance; the only possible reactions are to be thrilled or shocked (or, conceivably, bored).

The biggest problem is the way that Clark and cinematographer Steve Gainer treat their subjects' bodies. The camera lingers on the boys' sweaty chests, practically sniffs Phillips's nether regions at every opportunity. It's already a cliché to accuse Clark of appreciating young flesh too much, but the question is who the flesh is for. If Bully is aimed at viewers the same age as his characters, all this hot stuff can't help being a come-on. If it is addressed to their parents, then it might plausibly be pointing the finger at adults' vicarious consumption of young sexuality. But in all honesty, it simply looks as if Clark is relishing his subjects' tarnished, gilded glamour and using the script's tut-tutting as a let-out.

What Bully lacks is the dispassionate stance of a writer like Dennis Cooper, whose novels immerse us in a universe of seriously damaged souls, and leave us to decide what moral position we take. Clark offers us tawdry thrills, hardly different from a Fifties teenage-rampage B-movie, then lets us pay for our pleasure on the way out with a conventional social-issue-movie sense of responsibility. Bully never pushes us onto truly dangerous ground, or challenges us to think or feel anything difficult. At heart, it's florida kids – same ready-made moral, but weirder, wilder and with more tanned bodies.