If you hated Larry Clark's first film Kids, then you will hate Bully for those exact same reasons. I happened to like Kids, and I'm happy to see Clark return with his usual button-pushing gimmicks: sweaty sex, naked teenagers, pornographic language, physical brutality, and buckets of drugs.
Bully puts violence at the forefront, as it is based on actual recent events in which a group of suburban Florida teens murdered one of their own, one Bobby Kent (Nick Stahl), the film's eponymous bully. Though the murder doesn't occur until late in the film, I'm not giving any plot points away – I think the idea is that you do know that this sadistic little creep is going to get killed, and as you wait for that dreadful moment, you have time to examine his character and wonder how much he deserves it. On the one hand, he takes delight in beating and humiliating his "best friend" Marty (Brad Renfro), as well as raping whichever girl crosses his path. On the other hand, he's the only one of his peers who is staying in school and doing his homework, has ambitions to go to college and start a career, and is respectful and courteous to his family. The film also hints that the source of Bobby's cruelty may be repressed homosexuality – he likes to show off his "sick" gay porn tapes to disgusted friends, has an uncomfortable controlling influence over Marty, and fosters an intense dislike for women. Frankly, Bobby is the only character in the story with any depth! The rest of the teens are, frankly, apathetic morons. One may wonder if Bobby's hatred of them, and vice versa, is class-related: these slackers may resent Bobby's promising future as much as they do his abuse.
Unlike Kids, which boasted a cast of talented amateurs, the actors here are mostly Hollywood pros, and with their polished performances you lose some of the immediacy found in Clark's debut. That said, the cast is mostly excellent (except for Rachel Miner, who repeatedly bares all for the camera but is only so-so in the difficult role of Marty's Lady Macbeth-like girlfriend), and Clark, a professional photographer, has a strong eye for depth and light. Though the film is frustratingly slack much of the time – it's hard to find much dramatic tension in teens smoking pot and humping each other – once the crime looms around the corner, the teenagers unravel awfully and the film's focus becomes clear: it's about the horror of murder, nothing more.
Some critics may argue that Clark is being too moralistic – one could interpret Bully as a "savage teen" exploitation film – but I believe Clark and his writers remain objective with the material, and aren't trying to explain why the murder happened. That these kids love Eminem and violent video games is not presented as a source of their so-called anguish; they kill not because they are angry, lost, or heartless, but merely because they are too young and stupid to understand what killing really means.