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Teenage wasteland

Bully comes across cold and realer than real

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Larry Clark, official chronicler of teen debauchery, manages to out-creep even himself in his teen-reality drama Bully, set amid the alligator-invested swamps and concrete strip malls of South Florida. Like River's Edge with a thudding, porno-rap beat, Bully is based on the grisly 1992 murder of Hollywood, Fla., teen Bobby Kent by his friends, as chronicled by Dallas Observer columnist and true crime author Jim Schutze.

The heavy metal stonerdom of River's Edge, Paradise Lost and Gummo is replaced with a gangsta rap zeitgeist that inspires these suburban wasteoids to emulate gangland posturing. Though Clark adds a sprinkling of Macbeth to give some artistic legitimacy to his film, the director's leering, keyhole vantage dominates, along with his obvious delight in confirming America's worst fears of what its kids are up to.

Marty (Brad Renfro) and Bobby (Nick Stahl) are "best friends," though, in a not uncommon teen definition of friendship, that buddyhood is based on Bobby's constant sadistic bullying of bottom dog Marty. The entrance of girls into what Clark implies is Bobby and Marty's barely closeted homosexual union proves disastrous. Marty takes up with sad-sack Lisa (Rachel Miner), who develops a ravenous attachment to him and a hatred for Bobby that soon has her plotting his murder with the help of her best friend, the halter-topped nympho Ali (Bijou Phillips).

In a teen world where every youth is thoroughly corrupted, Bobby offers a clear example of what is bad. Ali, Marty and Lisa round up a posse of rehab escapees, potheads, video game junkies and a self-styled suburban mafioso who are enticed to kill Bobby out of boredom, loyalty, a sense of justice or a desire for the next high. As in Kids, Clark's motives in telling his story are as eerily detached as his alienated teens. And his filmmaking style -- punctuated by gratuitous crotch shots and naked girls on toilets -- is the visual equivalent of copping a feel.

Clark's parasitic devotion to excess and teen flesh tests the limits of liberal tolerance for "artistic expression." And yet his viewpoint has a deeply self-satisfied, moralistic core. Clark implies that the sudden frenzy of violence that causes Bully's kids to murder a peer with knives and bats is the outcome of drugs, violent music, video games and oblivious parents (though Jim Schutze's investigation of the case saw no evidence of parental malfeasance in a "wholesome, relatively affluent atmosphere"). Bully traffics in the same loser-ville demimonde as Kids, of teenagers with brains so fried by readily available sex and drugs, aimlessness and absent or abusive parents, that their moral barometers have been jolted out of whack.

But the telltale slime trail of a Clark production is its hypocrisy. Bully suggests that teenagers are outright monsters -- sex- and drug-addled zombies with no hint of a conscience at the beginning of the film -- then makes a moral about-face as they plot the murder. An almost campy tone creeps into the film as the kids, led by the suddenly goth-demonic Lisa (aka Lady Macbeth), turn murderous. Transformed from sadistic, greedy, violent, sex-crazed beasts, the kids of the film's denouement are simply pitiful morons and the butt of Clark's private joke, bragging or spilling their guts almost immediately after fleeing the murder scene. Clark's "problem" may not be that he loves teenagers, but that he actually despises them and enjoys the spectacle of their bedroom cavorting and hasty comeuppance in the same moral formula that defines the slasher film.

There is a cold, detached, dehumanizing quality to Clark's filmmaking style that gives his work a predatory, icily amoral tone. That clinical approach feels more like TV docudrama and reality TV than the empathetic viewpoint found in the similarly teen-obsessed work of Kids by screenwriter Harmony Korine (Gummo).

There is no more revealing an illustration of Clark's relentless chicken-hawking than his dirty old man-cam, which strays from the potholed storyline to take in Ali's crotch as she gets a pedicure, roam hounddog style up her thigh or survey her daisy-duked derriere as she sashays across a suburban lawn. Unnecessary for storytelling purposes or for sketching character, such shots seem only to indulge Clark's far-ranging interest in young bodies while alienating us from characters like Ali, who come across as unfeeling, exploitable hunks of meat.

From the constant white Florida sunshine streaming into bland tract house living rooms, to the fierce expressions of teen loyalty and love, Bully feels realer than real. And it's that sense that Clark knows whereof he speaks that gives his films their disturbing, controversial energy. But that realism has a price. Without a sense of purpose or insight into his teen killers, Bully has a cold, vapid ugliness.

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