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Wasted Youth

"I want you to suck my big dick. I want you to lick my balls." Thus begins Larry Clark's Bully, a return to Kids territory, following a forgettable detour into adulthood titled Another Day in Paradise that apparently didn't kick up enough of a fuss for the guy. So he went back to what works -- teens having sex, doing drugs, and being violent and obnoxious. It's working so far: Bully is already being referred to as "controversial."

Technically the dialogue isn't the beginning of the film: That would be the stark white-on-black title reading "This actually happened." A bold statement, given that Bully isn't a documentary; most movies use the old standby "based on a true story" to cover their asses when dramatic license is taken, as it invariably is to some degree. Clark seems to intend the film as a call to action, much as Kids was alleged to be, a reality check for complacent parents who don't realize their kids are eeeevil! The fact that juvenile crime is actually on the decline these days matters not a whit.

Anyhow, the kid offering his genitalia for the licking is Marty (Brad Renfro, dramatically breaking from his Disney past), a recent high-school dropout and former competitive surfer living here in Fort Lauderdale. He's theoretically best friends with Bobby (Nick Stahl), a well-to-do stereo salesman-in-training, but Bobby is the bully of the title, repeatedly beating Marty physically, pimping him out for phone sex and male stripperdom, and deterring women from hitting on him. In classic dysfunctional-relationship form, Bobby gets really apologetic any time Marty actually calls him on it, but swiftly returns to his unpleasant ways. In what passes for irony, Bobby's dad thinks Marty is the bad influence.

Complications arise when Marty and Bobby hook up with two pretty young things -- an audacious flirt named Ali (the gloriously exhibitionistic Bijou Phillips) and her girl-next-door friend Lisa (Rachel Miner). Lisa has sex with Marty and falls instantly in love, then a few days later is carrying his child. Ali is into Bobby and ready to have sex with him, but when he insists upon making her watch gay porn while they do it, she suddenly resists all his advances. Being a power freak and, lest we forget, a bully, Bobby hits her several times and proceeds to have sex with her anyway.

Lisa doesn't get too concerned about the possibility that her best friend has just been raped, but the fact that Bobby is mean to Marty, the new love of her life, is unforgivable. So of course, in the manner of all kids these days, she does a bunch of drugs and decides to murder Bobby. Because Marty, Ali, and their circle of friends are equally typical kids, they listen to some gangsta rap and death metal, do a whole lot more drugs, and then agree to aid and abet.

Before we go any further, let's give Bully due credit for the one thing it does really well: sex scenes. Most teen movies these days promise much and deliver next to nothing, so a movie in which full frontal nudity appears to be a casting requirement (yes, ladies, for the guys too) is a welcome break. Short of actual porno, these are the best teen sex scenes you'll ever see. Credit should also go to Steve Gainer's cinematography and Andrew Hafitz and Brent Joseph's editing; shock value may be what counts, but unlike in Kids, Clark now seems to realize the importance of visual flair and a narrative, though his frequent placement of the camera on Phillips's crotch is more risible than anything else.

That said, there are plenty of reasons not to give the movie credit. For all Clark's depictions of sex and drugs that one imagines might be calculated to outrage folks like William Bennett and Tipper Gore, Bully actually plays right into their hands, gleefully linking these homicidal youth to Mortal Kombat, Eminem (in the original book by Jim Schutze upon which the script is based, it's the Geto Boys, proving that any demonized rapper will do), and recreational drug use. But even that's less disturbing than the underlying theme of both Bully and Kids: that the youth of today are monstrous and dangerous, likely to drive under the influence of drugs, have unsafe sex, and plot murder on a whim. This is the sort of thinking that promotes nonsensical "zero tolerance" policies in schools, the ones mocked by the right when they involve weapons and by the left when they involve drugs (and conversely endorsed in mindless fashion): If kids are this evil, what choice do we have but to lay down the full force of law at the first hint of trouble? (The fact that Eminem actually authorized the use of his music can only be interpreted as a "screw you" to his critics, given that the film confirms their worst fears.)

Of course Schutze's book is a true-crime account of an actual event, and Schutze, in a New Times story last fall, admitted, "The more I looked at this stuff, the more I thought there's no mystery here. These kids are little shitheads, and they have no excuses." He also described the way Hollywood insisted on giving the characters excuses for their actions: One screenwriter wanted the preservatives in their food to be the key factor. Motivation of a sort exists in the final film: Bobby's a jerk, so let's kill him. What doesn't exist is any understanding of the characters. (The book at least provided a thorough look into their backgrounds that fleshed them out more.) It's one thing to do a true-crime book that examines the case without necessarily finding a rational explanation but quite another to make a dramatic film in which you have obvious contempt for all your characters. Make a documentary, interview the victim's families; that's the cinematic way to go about it (and a truer equivalent to Schutze's book) if you're really interested in what makes good kids go bad.

Clark, however, doesn't see the characters as good kids gone bad, because he seems incapable of believing in good kids, period. Even the preteens shown on-screen drink beer and smoke. The best he can muster here is Derek (Daniel Franzese), a shy, overweight type who truly seems to care about Lisa in a way that her boyfriend does not, but his goodness manifests itself only as physical aggression against Marty when he gets too forceful with Lisa. Ultimately Derek is as complicit in the violence as everyone else.

Like the recent Baise-moi, Bully is a whole lot of shock and titillation trying to pretend it's saying something. Unlike the French import, however, the film has neither awareness of its own absurdity nor anything for the audience to care about in the slightest. And it's even more insidious, because very few are going to confuse Baise-moi with reality. Larry Clark would like us to believe that he's created a new-millennium Dead End Kids; in fact, he's a lot closer to a 21st-century Reefer Madness.

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Luke Y. Thompson
Contact: Luke Y. Thompson

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