Review By: Staff
There are five words which plague modern cinema. No not Ben Ben Ben Ben Affleck. They're words which can disgrace anything from Oscar winning epics to gory horror films.
Based on a true story.
So many films attach themselves to the mantle of true story that it's hard to distinguish between fact and fiction. Some films use the title to be ironic, Fargo for example, some use it selectively, A Beautiful Mind perhaps, and some use it very very tenuously, The Exorcism of Emily Rose springs to mind.
So when a film starts with those five dreaded words, it's always wise to watch with a hint of skepticism. Bully was a 2001 drama which bore that fateful precursor. It came from notorious director Larry Clark who first burst onto the scene in 1995 with the controversial film Kids. Never afraid to push the boundaries, Clark made Bully a heady mix of teenage sex, violence and recklessness.
It tells the true story of two friends, Marty (Brad Renfro) and Bobby (Nick Stahl). Although the two are lifelong friends, Bobby mercilessly bullies Marty. In the small Florida town they live in, Marty feels trapped, unable to escape the abusive friendship he's found himself in. Until he meets Lisa (Rachel Miner) and they strike up a relationship. When Bobby rapes Lisa's friend, Lisa finds herself unable to put up with the way he treats people anymore. She coins a plan with Marty and a group of fellow disillusioned youths: to kill Bobby.
Bully is at its most effective in its earlier stages. Bobby is a truly repulsive character, brilliantly played by Nick Stahl. His treatment of Marty is shocking, as is his complete lack of any redeeming features. He simply has no morals. Yet his father is insistent that it's Marty who is the bad influence, since he comes from the poorer family.
Marty is a tough character to identify with, he resembles more of an empty shell than an actual human being. This is a problem which typifies most of the teenage cast. The plan to kill Bobby is one which seems to be an obvious progression for them all, even those who have never met him. As if killing someone is as normal and mundane as going to the movies. It's a difficult barrier for audience members to cross. To empathize with something so heartless that is treated with such indifference.
As the film switches into 'how do we kill him, when do we kill him' territory, my interest tended to dissipate. It's the stuff of many a TV movie and the film's basis in reality only helps to further its Lifetime aura. The strong cast help to lift it somewhat, Stahl proving an easy figure to hate while Renfro, Miner and their minions all playing trashy airheads alarmingly well.
Director Larry Clark yet again fills the movie with as many
So, the all important question – is it true? Well while I watched it, I must admit I had my reservations. The complete callousness of the kids coupled with their weak grip on reality and the consequences of their actions made it all seem a little fictional. But as the credits rolled, the film finally had it's effect on me. It was all true.
We get to see pictures of the teens, plus the sentences each of them received for their brutal crime. It's a brief montage that manages to have a stronger effect than the movie as a whole. Maybe it's my fault. My skepticism of films 'based on true stories' clouding my judgment. But when you have to endure The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning being tagged with the mythical label of fact then it's understandable that cynicism sets in.
The only real bonus feature are some Cast & Crew Interviews in which Larry Clark claims every single member of his large teen cast is the best teen actor since the one he was talking about prior to that one. We also get to see interviews with the teenage cast themselves, most of whom give little of interest away. One interesting fact is shared by actress/socialite Bijou Phillips who claims the final scene with all the kids talking to one another in the courtroom was taken word-for-word from the actual kids at the time.
To give it credit,Bully is one of those rare true stories that's actually true. While it gives it an air of authenticity, it also makes the film a little dull to watch. The characters are well-acted but all impossible to identify with and also separate apart. The logistics of how to kill Bobby give the film a soft second act, letting down the powerful opening. The film will probably work best as a cautionary tale to all wayward parents, the film's tagline asking 'It's 4AM, do you know where your kids are?'. Hopefully not stabbing and beating their rapist friend, I'd hope.
Movie Grade: C
DVD Features Grade: D+
Overall Grade: C-