Bully: Larry (Kids) Clark’s Third Feature, Starring Nick Stahl

In his third feature, Bully, noted photographer-turned director Larry Clark continues to explore the same issues he had tackled in his controversial debut, Kids, a cause-celebre that led Miramax to create a new division for its release.

As written by Zachary Long and Roger Pullis, the script, based on Jim Schultze’s disturbing novel, is a reworking of an actual 1993 murder in a South Florida suburb, in which a rough, truly complicated and abusive boy (splendidly played by Nick Stahl) was ruthlessly killed by his friends. Lions Gate faces a tough challenge in marketing another harrowing picture (along with the upcoming “O”) about amoral youths engaged in senseless violence.

Produced by the then rebel filmmaker Gus Van Sant, Kids benefited from its clandestine Sundance premiere which, combined with Clark’s penchant for lurid subject matter, created a buzz for the candid, if disappointing picture, before it went to Cannes. No luck this time: One can understand the nervousness of Lions Gate, which pulled the movie (at the very last minute) out of LA’s Method Festival and decided not to play any festival.

Though intended as a cautionary, wake-up call, Bully evidenced the same problems that both Kids and Another Day in Paradise (Clark’s sophomore effort), suffered from: Lack of a sharp point of view and failure to dramatize harrowing events. With a background in photography, Clark is not much of a dramatic filmmaker, and, while his fascination with youth at their most problematic and depraved is admirable, his movies are not only episodic but shapeless, walking a fine line between still photos and emotional melodramas.

Set in affluent Florida burb, story concerns two friends: A shy, insecure surfer, Marty Puccio (Renfro) who’s constantly hassled and harassed by Bobby (Stahl), all in the name of a supposedly intimate camaraderie. The imbalanced relationship between the two changes, when Marty falls in love with a sex-starved girl, Lisa (Miner), who immediately sees through Bobby. Almost on a whim, she proposes, “to kill the bastard,” an idea hat’s quickly embraced by her cohorts, specifically Heather, who, in previous encounter was beaten and raped by Bobby.

Discussions of how to get rid of Bobby occur amidst other “fun” sessions, in which the youngsters engage in aimless routines: drive their cars, smoke dope, make love, and so on. Marty has a job, but the others seem to live an utterly normless life, both amoral and immoral life, for which their parents and teachers (depicted as caricatures) fail to provide any direction or guidance.

Clark is not a moralist, who is good, but he is also not much of a dramatist either. All too often, one gets the impression that the fascination with youth in his pictures, just like his photos, provides an excuse for sheer voyeurism. How else can he justify that most of kids are fully naked most of the time (even when they don’t screw), and that an admiringly caressing camera is placed between girls’ legs, or glides over the boys’ sexy chests and butts. Nonetheless, in contrast to Kids, which was incendiary but shallow, here Clark’s morbid gaze is targeted at agonizing issues in a slightly deeper, more responsible way.

Vastly uneven, Bully vacillates between genuinely compelling and horrifying scenes, such as the deliberately planned and executed murder, and others that are dramatically shapeless and visually sensationalistic, with images thrown in just because they form an intriguing erotic composition, or provide an interesting isolated observation. It’s too bad, that the peculiar blend of shocking beauty and distressing horror, which defines Clark’s still photos, is missing from his movies.