Last summer, I picked up the book "Bully: A True Story of High School Revenge" by Jim Schutze from my local library. I don't know why I checked it out: I never read true crime books. Regardless, I plowed through the thing in a matter of days - partly because the book was absolutely riveting and partly because the story was so unpleasant, I could hardly wait to get beyond it. "Bully" explored the killing of an abusive Florida teen by his friends. As gruesome as the story was, Schutze's writing went a long way toward explaining how something of this nature could happen. The book has now been adapted for the big screen by probably the only person who could have done so: Larry Clark, whose film Kids was a groundbreaking and controversial look at disaffected youth. (He also made another picture I admired called Another Day in Paradise that dealt with similar themes.)
If you plan to see the film version of Bully, one thing needs to be made clear: this is a true story about an event so horrifying it was almost unreal. The movie pulls no punches in portraying the facts. Some audience members are destined to leave in disgust at the sex, drug use, and violence portrayed. It's that shocking. But having read the book, I can attest that Clark's vision is authentic. Rather than issuing a pious condemnation of the murder, the director has crafted a powerful morality tale that puts you in the characters' frame of mind in order to better understand the mechanics behind such a heinous act.
The last straw seems to be yet another beating of Marty. Lisa, a slightly frumpy girl who is almost obsessed with her boyfriend, comforts him on the beach. She says the only way to stop Bobby would be to kill him. Marty agrees, as do the rest of their friends. From the second the idea of killing Bobby is introduced, the characters get excited about having him out of their lives; the casualness of their desire to kill him is chilling. For them, it is simply a way to deal with the problem.
Needing a weapon, they track down a slightly older kid nicknamed "The Hitman" (Leo Fitzpatrick). He claims to be a contract killer and the other kids are so stupid, they never question the fact that he lives at home and is terrified of waking his dad. He provides some advice on how to kill Bobby and get away with it. Lending a hand are Lisa's cousin Derek Dzvirko (Daniel Franzese), a mentally slow kid who blurs his mind playing "Mortal Kombat" at the local arcade, Heather Swaller (Kelli Garner), and Donny Semenec (Michael Pitt). Heather and Donny are basically coming along for the ride; they accept the invitation to help in the killing as simply as some kids accept an invitation to the Friday night football game.
Bobby Kent is then led out to the swamp where he is stabbed and beaten repeatedly. He pleads for help, but his dying body is thrown into the water. Although Clark doesn't linger on the murder any more than is necessary, he conveys the horror of the event in a way that won't easily leave your consciousness.
One of the best scenes in Bully comes when the Hitman is meeting with Bobby and Lisa's crew to explain how the murder should go down. As the Hitman speaks, Clark's camera keeps going in a circle, repeatedly showing the face of each teenager as they absorb what is being said. Some of them look excited at the thought of getting rid of Bobby; others look dazed, as though they don't fully comprehend the severity of the conversation. This is a key element to the movie. These kids are not smart. They live in a world filled with casual drug use and promiscuous sex. They aspire to nothing more than continued indulgence. They do not have the mental capabilities to do much else. It is the emptiness of their own lives that allows them to place such little value on Bobby's life. The parents are only peripherally involved; they don't give much of a rip about anything either and are therefore poor role models. After Bobby is killed, the group members immediately start bragging about what they have done. Their own callous stupidty does them in.
As he did with Kids, Clark gives Bully a documentary feel. Shocking though it may be, this approach is absolutely necessary. The movie wears you down with the sex and drugs in order to create a portrait of how these teenagers lived. You're only watching a two-hour movie; this was their way of life. By getting down in the dirt, the film achieves an understanding - not a condonement, not an approval - of how these lost children could so simply choose murder as a solution. The performances are bold in the way they meet Clark's approach at its own level. Franzese is particularly good as the kid who doesn't get, then suddenly does when it is too late.
Bully is not a pleasant film, not an entertaining film. It is, however, an important film. It suggests that there is a deep moral abyss into which many of our nation's adolescents are falling. The movie itself is intensely moral in its stance against what these kids did. By portraying their lives with hellish accuracy, there is no room for glamorization. I found a quote online from the movie's screenwriter Zachary Long, which sums up Bully: "It is not until we face our harsh reality that we can begin to do something about it. This movie is not just for kids; most importantly, it's for parents." The film is harrowing and unforgettable, an eye-opener that may provide a much-needed wake-up call to parents of disaffected kids.
( out of four)
Bully is unrated but contains graphic teenage sex, nudity, drug use, and violence/gore. It is appropriate for adults only. The running time is 1 hour and 53 minutes.
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