Underground Film Journal

Posted In » Movie Reviews

Movie Review: Bully

Is teenagers smokin’ pot, having sex and getting drunk necessarily a bad thing?

I don’t think so.

While I never smoked pot, I did a fair share of drinking as a teenager. Maybe not every weekend, but quite often. As for the sex, that was something I didn’t really indulge in either. But that wasn’t my choice.

A lot of my friends drank and smoke and, I would assume, have sex. We were all dorks or geeks or nerds or whatever you want to call us, most of us being in the top percentile of our class or just in the good Advanced Placement classes and the National Honor Society and whatnot. The places where you find dorks, I guess.

I’ve lost contact with pretty much all my high school friends, except for one really, and since I don’t know these people now I probably shouldn’t make sweeping statements like the one I’m about to, but: I think we all turned out pretty ok.

So, what to make of Larry Clark’s BULLY?

BULLY is based on the true story of a group of teen “non-achievers” in Florida who conspire to kill a bully who’s been abusing them. The film is also based on a book by Jim Schutze that has a fair amount of controversy surrounding it concerning the author’s seemingly fast and loose playing with the facts. It’s hard to trust the film, too. The teen characters in the film are cut from exactly the same cloth as Clark’s first film, KIDS, about vicious, promiscuous teenagers in NYC. BULLY, in many regards, could even be considered as KIDS II. Clark doesn’t seem to be recreating the truth of a horrible event, but forcing his agenda onto a real-life incident.

But that doesn’t make BULLY any less a powerful film. I found the movie so gut-wrenching that I literally felt like vomiting after exiting the theater my emotions were so twisted around each other. Even if the book is full of lies and Clark’s vision is a total distortion of reality, there’s still one simple fact that can’t be overlooked: A group of teenagers conspired to kill and brutally murdered another kid. Maybe all the participants weren’t involved. Maybe they weren’t all as brain-dead as Clark envisions them. But a kid is dead and more than one person did him in.

In an interview with Clark that I read, in the Angelika Film Center’s “FilmBill”, he said he was attracted to this story because most of the kids weren’t the typical “neglected” teenagers one might assume be involved with all this sex, drugs and death. The kids came from decent homes. So, in Clark’s mind, the question is: “What went wrong?”

It would be easy to criticize Clark, then, because he doesn’t even approach to answer this question in the film. In many ways, he may just be a dirty old man wanting to film young people having sex. It’s been rumored – or maybe even reported, I’m not sure – that underground cartoon Robert Crumb sometimes masturbates to his lurid drawings. Does Clark to his films?

But I don’t want to criticize Clark. I think BULLY is brilliant. And in the same FilmBill article, Clark rants about the MPAA and how they refuse to give his movies R ratings, which limits the theaters that they can play in and who can go see them. Clark claims that his films are ostensibly primarily for teenagers, the exact people whom the MPAA are trying to “protect” by refusing to give BULLY an R (BULLY was released unrated, rather than NC-17; KIDS was NC-17).

I’d have to agree with Clark on this point, that his films are “better” for teenagers than some Freddy Prinze Jr. and Sarah Michelle Gellar mindless shit-a-thon. BULLY is like an old Afterschool TV Special pumped up on crack, steroids and amphetamines. If a filmmaker is going to show what reckless unprotected teenage sex and alcohol and drug abuse leads to, he’s got to show kids fucking, drinking and doing drugs.

For me, BULLY is not about the sex and violence, nor is it about these particular kids. It’s about the overall lack of a moral center in American society. Instead, we have this phony moralizing, such as preventing kids from seeing nudity or hearing bad language in movies, and condemning Hollywood, and people like Larry Clark, for making “dirty movies.”

But I might be ranting for nothing here. I saw BULLY quite a while ago, maybe a month ago, maybe longer, and I haven’t heard anything about it since. Nobody seems particularly outraged. I haven’t spoken to anybody who’s even seen it. This might be partially the result of the “no rating” the film was released with, preventing it being shown in many theaters, which is a shame because this is the kind of film everyone should be talking about rather than shit like PLANET OF THE APES.

If anyone’s interested, the case the film is based on has produced some bizarre, and interesting, websites. The oddest being FreeLisaConnelly.com, which includes a rant saying the webmaster has received death threats from the film’s producers, a highly dubious suggestion.

Most of the content of FreeLisaConnelly.com has been taken down, but if you want to read some of what used to be there you can check out another site dedicated to “outing” bullies (now defunct after time of writing this). FreeLisaConnelly.com somehow had tied the BULLY case to the Shah of Iran!

Finally, writer Jim Schutze defends his book and the facts therein on his own personal/promotional page (also defunct).

Buy this movie on DVD at Amazon.com!