Kids came out in 1995 accompanied by a ridiculous amount of buzz. It was either one of the most powerful or repugnant films ever made; teenage screenwriter Harmony Korine was either a genius or a degenerate; it either signalled a new era in no-holds-barred cinema or sounded the death knell of Western civilization. So I was surprised to find that it bore the message of, and was hardly more explicit than, an ABC Afterschool Special. We had a bunch of kids, only a few of whom were really characterized at all, getting high, fucking and fighting, and then it turns out that, uh-oh, they're all getting HIV. So don't do that, kids!

Thus, I was expecting Bully to be more of the same, especially since what little I'd heard about it echoed the complaints about Kids — director Larry Clark is just peddling teenage flesh, etc. And the first half hour or so of Bully does seem like a bit of a reprise of the 1995 film, as it's chiefly concerned with establishing the story's suburban-Florida teenage-wasteland milieu and the dynamic among the central characters. We've got Marty, a cold-eyed jock who surprisingly turns out not to be the bully of the title, as he proves to be the target of a lifetime of abuse from his weaselly "best friend," ranging from simple battery to pimping him out to supply 50-year-old men with phone sex. They meet up with a pair of girls, the smarter of whom grows seriously attached to Marty — and, in Lady Macbeth style, convinces him that the solution to everyone's problems is to kill weasel boy.

What happens next distinguishes Bully from its predecessor: it develops an actual plot, as the murder plans take shape and ensnare an increasingly wide circle of accomplices. Especially impressive is the way the characters are seamlessly introduced, one by one, and suddenly there's this huge cast and yet there's no confusion about who's who, no sense that any of the characters is redundant or just a cipher taking up space. Sure, some characters aren't particularly deep (one's just a laughably stupid stoner) but for the most part the characterization is surprisingly nuanced: no one is all victimizer or all victim. And of course naturally the plan goes awry, and the film becomes by turns gripping, powerfully sad, and absolutely hilarious... sometimes all at once. (Leo Fitzpatrick's character has one of the funniest lines I've ever heard... and yet it sums up the theme quite nicely.)

As for the critics' objections that the film is voyeuristic: film is a visual medium. It's kind of hard to establish that these kids' lives consist almost entirely of getting high and fucking if you never show them getting high or fucking. And despite what you see on TV, when people engage in postcoital conversation they generally don't feel compelled to chastely hold sheets over themselves. Those who do should probably seek help. As should those who can watch a film like this and come away disturbed not by the world depicted — and this is a true story; I've read the court transcripts and the movie is astonishingly faithful to them — but rather by the brief inclusion of a 20-year-old actress's nipples in the depiction.

By contrast, Training Day was pretty lame. It tries to establish itself as more cerebral than the common thriller by playing Denzel Washington's character as morally ambiguous: is he a bad guy, or is he right when he argues that the most effective way to be a good guy is to infiltrate the underworld and that that includes using some of the bad guys' tactics? But in the end, nah, he's just a bad guy, and the whole thing becomes a highly contrived hero-vs.-monster time-waster.

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