In the summer of 1993, a group of Florida teenagers got fed up with the gross and petty tyrannies they constantly suffered at the hands of 18-year-old Bobby Kent, so they killed him. They lured him with the promise of sex (with a girl he had once raped and beaten), then they took turns stabbing him. The final strokes were dealt by Marty Puccio, Bobby’s best friend and chief object of abuse. As Bobby fell, sobbing, “Marty, man, whatever I did I’m sorry,” Marty disemboweled him and cut his throat. In the days that followed, the culprits compulsively bragged about what they had done, and they were all eventually brought to justice.
This sordid story of six teen cretins is retold in Bully, the new movie from Larry Clark, with Nick Stahl as Bobby, Brad Renfro as Marty, and Rachel Miner as Lisa, Marty’s girlfriend (who egged him on to the killing out of a strange mixture of fear, jealousy and insecurity). Clark is the well-known photographer whose first film, Kids, created a sensation in 1995. Kids was fictional, from a script by teenage writer Harmony Korine, but if Clark was looking to film a sequel or companion piece to Kids, he couldn’t have invented a better story than the murder of Bobby Kent.
The script this time is by Zachary Long and Roger Pullis, from a book by Jim Schutze. According to the film’s press notes, Long’s script was offered to Clark, who met with Long and asked for a rewrite; somewhere along the line—this part isn’t exactly clear—Pullis was brought in. Whatever the script went through in development, the finished product says “a film by Larry Clark,” and it has Clark’s smudgy fingerprints all over it.
Clark has a knack for gritty realism that amounts almost to a fetish. Not for him are the careful compositions of Steven Spielberg or the long Steadicam tracking shots of Martin Scorsese. Clark’s movies seem to be shot by a camera slung casually from his hip, catching characters who don’t know they’re being photographed. The fetish is as much in what Clark shows us as in how he shows it. There are no fewer than four extended and extremely explicit sex scenes, not counting a couple of scenes where two teens are shown casually humping while others talk in the foreground. Every now and then, he will interrupt the action for a leering close-up of a girl’s crotch, lingering over the pubic hair peeking out from her cutoff jeans.
Moments like that—and there are many of them—make Bully uncomfortable to sit through, for all Clark’s vérité virtuosity. His admirers would no doubt call him unflinching, but his style looks more like voyeurism to me. The movie’s press materials are at pains to tut-tut over the sad state of American teens adrift in a world without adult guidance or supervision. But it’s hard to take that kind of admonishment seriously when Clark seems practically to be drooling over all the loveless sex and drug-ridden stupors we see around us.
At the same time, scenes with the teens’ parents are always shown from the kids’ perspectives; the adults invariably look either rigid, tyrannical or cluelessly ineffectual. Scenes after the murder are played for black comedy (“Mom, if I saw somebody get murdered but I didn’t try to stop it, it wouldn’t be like I did it myself would it?” “I don’t understand; what are you trying to say?”). The scenes with the kids have an unmistakably prurient charge, and the cautionary lost-youth head-shaking has the air of groping for social significance.
Besides, this isn’t really the text for preaching that sermon. What we remember most about this gang of teens—besides their aimless amorality—is their colossal, unbelievable stupidity; they seem incapable of thinking five minutes into the future. When they get mad at Bobby, the only solution they can imagine is to kill him, and once they’ve done that, they can’t stop talking about it. It’s hard to keep from thinking that their stupidity, like their amorality and their smooth, slim bodies, is part of the charge for Larry Clark—more than any “lessons” we might draw from the story.