The Movie Waffler First Look Review - <i>BULLY</i> | The Movie Waffler

First Look Review - BULLY

A bullied teen befriends an older woman online.

Review by Benjamin Poole (@filmclubchs)

Directed by: Stephen Gaffney

Starring: Ciaran McCabe, Kieran O'Reilly, James Ward

"At times, Bully becomes too oppressive. However, in the third act, Bully develops its judiciously constructed plot foundations, and oppressive mise-en-scene, to become something of a social thriller."

Is the hostile figure of The Bully modern cinemas most enduring antagonist? No teen focussed flick is complete without some sort of meathead thug causing the nerdy lead aggravation, and this year alone has seen Unfriended and Cyberbully take online intimidation as their central theme - not to mention The Gift’s twisted exploration of the ramifications of childhood traumas. The peerless Let the Right One In even positions its nasty little gang of bullies as more threatening and immoral than an ancient vampire - the figure of the bully apparently more unpleasant than the film’s supernatural monster, because at least the latter has a logic to its threat; as the vampire needs blood to survive, whereas the bullies simply, insidiously, want blood for blood’s sake; they want it for the lulz. And, most pertinently, unlike little Eli, bullies are real; in cinema they persist because in actual life they exist.
From this realism angle, Stephen Gaffney’s impressive micro-budget debut Bully takes a harrowing look at the archetype, with victim Karl (Ciaran McCabe) violently harassed in school by classmates, and subjected to equal vitriol at home courtesy of his sot father. Tell the teacher? Not when his gropey maths tutor (Kieran O'Reilly) is making sexual insinuations towards Karl. Yeah, it’s pretty bleak. But there is hope of redemption; out of the blue, Karl is contacted online by Ruby (Aislinn Ní Uallacháin), an improbably gorgeous and supportive older woman, who gives Karl flirty banter and such a confidence boost that he soon develops a relationship with sweet Christina (Chelsea O'Connor). Will it ‘get better’ for the beleaguered Karl? You wouldn’t wager on it…
The most striking aspect of Bully is its raw invocation of teenage ennui; born into captivity, the world of the adolescent is one that is often flat and limited in scope. While Hollywood fare would have it that the teen experience is a dizzying carousel of house parties, pashing on and proms, the actual truth is that for most of us, our teens are marked by lack of ready cash and mobility. The realism of Bully is evident in the muted lifestyles of its teens; for example, when they bunk school, Karl and Christina’s Day Off consists of sitting around on some swings, wincing as they chug back 20/20.
The austerity of the film is exalted by its dishwater colour scheme, and airless triumvirate of locations; bedroom/front room/classroom; a milieu that may as well be a prison for Karl. Another caustic feature of Bully is its use of social media to demonstrate how, with the prevalence of facebook, there is no real privacy anymore, and a particularly telling scene has Karl, his Skype alerting him to Ruby’s incoming call, swap his t.shirt and slick back his hair; even in his room, there is no sanctuary, being a teen means always being under some sort of scrutiny or pressure. Furthermore, thanks to camera phones, each of Karl’s humiliations is enacted at least twice, once in actuality, and then, potentially forever, online.
At times, Bully becomes too oppressive. Around half way through, I began to feel almost like a bully myself for passively sitting back perusing the ceaseless misery of Karl’s life, and the film does lay it on a bit thick (do we really need to witness Karl’s nonce teacher compulsively masturbating in the staff toilets to understand that he’s scum?). However, in the third act, Bully develops its judiciously constructed plot foundations, and oppressive mise-en-scene, to become something of a social thriller, with a ripped-from-the-headlines twist that, while I’m not sure I’m fully on board with, I applaud for its careful and convincing build up.