A troubling vérité-style docudrama about worthless, contemptible, murderous teenage losers, "Bully" is a raw and graphic, half cautionary tale, half exploitation flick, similar to director Larry Clark's controversial 1995 film "Kids."
But as infamous as "Kids" was for its grossly candid depiction of drug use and careless, even vengeful sex, it was largely fictional. "Bully" isn't quite as coarse, but may be more chilling as it is based on true events: The circumstances surrounding the very premeditated but very sloppy slaying of a malevolent south Florida delinquent who physically intimidated and verbally abused his friends until, well, they killed him.
Fascinating in a "Cops"-meets-Psychology Today, can't-help-but-look kind of way, every character in this film is a vile imbecile -- the kind of nitwits who genuinely look to angry white rapper Eminem as a role model.
But the shockingly intrinsic performances Clark gets from his cast bring the picture an energy and potency that's hard to deny.
Rachel Miner ("Joe the King," "Henry Fool") plays the pivotal role of 16-year-old Lisa Connelly, a vapid laggard who loses her virginity to Marty Puccio (Brad Renfro), a vulgar misogynistic 17-year-old who has spent his life as the punching bag of Bobby Kent (Nick Stahl), the title character.
Lisa's is naive and blindly devoted to Marty (she declares her love after two days and gets excited when she learns she's knocked up) but as she watches him berated, abused and literally pimped to perverted older men at the hands of his violent, latently homosexual "best friend," she slowly turns into the mastermind (if you can call it that) of a plot to murder Bobby.
She recruits a slutty girlfriend named Ali (Bijou Phillips) to come on to Bobby and get him out to a secluded road where he's to be stabbed and beaten by not only these three conspirators, but by four other drug-addled pals they've stupidly involved in their collusion.
As inept and ill conceived as their scheme is (the extent of their planning is something akin to "OK, we need more bats."), even before the kids finally do the deed -- leaving a trail of evidence and disclosure a mile wide in their wake -- they were screwing it up. Getting Bobby turned on to Ali doesn't go as planned (he rapes her) and Lisa gets cold feet during their first attempt to kill him. She freezes up while standing behind him with a gun while he has sex with Ali again on the hood of a car.
Clark has a propensity and a predisposition for this kind of ugly, unpleasant story, and his coarse but resonant filmmaking style serves "Bully" well. In fact, one has to wonder if his casting of young actors with their own troubled pasts -- like Miner (married at 17 to Macaulay Culkin, divorced two years later) and Renfro (drug and grand theft arrests) -- might not have been a deliberate attempt to lend the movie additional, congenital, subconscious authenticity.
One thing that is certainly deliberate is his unchecked sanctification of shock value. This picture is plied with casual nudity, licentious dialogue and borderline-pornographic sex. Sometimes it serves a purpose -- Clark doesn't want his audience to feel at ease even for a moment. Other times it's just gratuitous. I mean, what purpose does it serve to randomly cut away to up-the-skirt shots of Phillips' underwear?
He's also a little too enamored of laying the irony on thick. He goes out of his way to demonstrate how these kids' parents are totally oblivious to the abhorrent facts of their children's lives, but he makes no attempt to analyze why these wretched guttersnipes are so screwed up in the first place.
One other big question mark hanging over "Bully" is the fact that this account is highly fictionalized (it's based on a book by Texas journalist Jim Schutze) and its characterizations and conclusions have been rabidly disputed by those close to the admitted killers. (Interestingly, the movie's web site -- bullythemovie.com -- links to related sites that rip into its version of events.
But while any civilized person would likely have issues with the legitimacy, deliberate purulence, and repugnant characters of "Bully," it remains an effective -- that is to say jarringly polemic -- and almost viscerally brutal experience to spend 106 minutes with these dregs of all-American dysfunction.