But perhaps the greater question might be, does it really matter? Artists are at their best when they affect the viewer, pure and simple, senses of morality be damned. Their job has always been to see if their inner turmoil, once unleashed onto the canvas, the block of clay or what have you, provokes. On this more primitive subjective level, of course, Clark is a monstrous success. How can you not look at a teenage boy, seductively posed in white boxers, forcing a pistol into his mouth and be unaffected?
Ironically enough, it was with this sexually charged (some might claim autobiographic) obsession with teens that easily survived Clark's transition from photographer to filmmaker when he directed 1995's Kids. In the film, Clark played to his strength in capturing the nihilistic existence of New York City teens as they drank, drugged and screwed their way through the day. The irony came in that in his depiction of this disaffection, Clark produced a very affecting work. Whether it was actually good became an entirely different question altogether.
With Bully, the fact-based story of a group of teens' murder conspiracy, Clark almost seems to have taken his young Manhattanites and plopped them into the suburban wasteland of south Florida. They, almost like their director, are virtually drowning in their nihilistic world of sex, violence, drugs and abuse, all of which seem interdependent. While providing yet another compelling, relevant and contemporary look at how our young are eating themselves, Clark's missteps keep this story from rising above itself.
The kids in Bully wander through their lives aimlessly, pairing up early and often when they're not surfing, listening to rap metal, cruising the strip mall-dotted main drag, getting high, ignoring impotent parents or playing video games. At the core of his tattered web of "friends" are two actual best friends, Bobby and Marty (Nick Stahl and Brad Renfroe, both of whom are frighteningly believable). Together since childhood, Bobby and Marty's relationship has taken on a vaguely homoerotic but palpably abusive tone. Bobby, the bully of the title, is a hopelessly closeted homosexual who takes his frustrations out on his surfer-dude friend.
Everything changes with the random advent of Lisa Connelly (Rachel Miner), who in her loneliness decides to fall in love with Marty after a one-night stand that also involves Bobby and her own best friend Ali (Bijou Phillips). Even in their attraction to Bobby, the girls ultimately are repulsed by his violent outbursts. When Lisa, out of nowhere, falls for Marty, Lisa becomes just as protective of her man and wary of Bobby. When she insists Marty "leave" Bobby, he replies (while nursing his latest black eye), "You don't understand; we've been together since we were kids," sounding very much like a battered wife. Lisa decides murder is the only solution.
Lisa's dedication to her goal becomes the one true thing of this film, the only sense of clarity that maintains itself. However misguided it may be, it's symbolic of a generation's groping for something real, tangible, to cling to. Just about everyone else involved seem like spectators than comrades as the "hit squad" grows. To most in the group, the mission feels more like a late-night kegger than a murder scheme. A baseball bat has to be returned afterward to a mall store, insists a conspirator, because "if they find out it's missing I'm gonna have to pay for it."
Clark may be at his best when developing the murderous ensemble, who would be stereotypes in most other directors' hands even if they are essentially losers. Michael Pitt, who was so good earlier this summer as Tommy Gnosis in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, particularly shines as a stoned-out acquaintance who laughs even while bragging about someone else's bad-ass rep. Phillips as Ali is a scary mix of sexual promiscuity and self-loathing. Leo Fitzpatrick (the "virgin surgeon" Telly from Kids) is creepy as the bumbling "Hitman." As an ensemble, the group builds its own tension as everyone waits for either someone to back out or strike the first blow, all ultimately retreating into fear and denial as soon as they realize what they've done.
But Clark misfires at key junctures of character development, specifically in his inability to illustrate the potential cycle of abuse in Bobby's family even after several potentially key scenes with his father. And really, after a while, Bully feels like a numbing combination of River's Edge and, well, Kids. He does get credit for his honesty of vision, but beyond that, Bully feels strangely empty. Or maybe that's the point.