50 STATES 50 MOVIES: FLORIDA
The Allure Of Paradise Entices You To Let Down Your Guard
Anyone who knows me knows that I have a rather acrimonious relationship with the State of Florida that dates back to the time my grandmother and I got trapped in a store in Kissimmee. I was three years old, the power went out and the doors wouldn’t open. We weren’t trapped long, but my grandmother’s angry response to there not being any emergency way out - “how stupid are you people?” and the store worker’s response - “this never happens” – often rings in my ears whenever I land in Fort Lauderdale or West Palm Beach.
Florida is one of the top five states I’ve visited most, so my experiences with the Sunshine State are extensive, and I have a lot of family and friends who have relocated there. I did want to use that insight and remain objective when picking a movie that best suits Florida.
Nearly everyone I know who relocated to Florida did so to improve their lives – escape crime, high cost of living, or other problems – and many went there only to be besotted with them, or worse, in the years that followed. A friend from high school moved to Florida to get away from her drug addict friends so she didn’t fall into addiction; two years in Jacksonville and she’s struggling with addiction herself; a cousin on my mom’s side who relocated to a community outside Tampa to escape rising crime, only to have her home burglarized. A similar thing happened to a friend from grammar school who relocated to Florida. She posted on Facebook that she was happy to “live in a place where I don’t have to lock the doors.” Burglars ransacked the house a week later while she hit in a closet. Family friends moved to Florida so their “kids could have a better life,” only to end up with their kids in jail and/or rehab.
The trend wasn’t lost on me. The only theory I could come up with was this: Florida entices you to let your guard down. People move there to escape; crime, taxes, lack of discipline, and cultural shifts and become less cautious and more vulnerable to these problems. It’s not that Florida has more of these problems – though crime there is comparatively high – it’s that people are less prepared to face them. For years, the rest of us looked at Florida with some sort of mix of scorn and entertainment. The phrase “Florida man” has entered the lexicon, stemming from news headlines about someone in the Sunshine State doing something heinous or stupid. It often feels like the joke is on Florida and everyone is in it except Floridians. Why are they not more aware of what’s happening around them? How is it possible that some of the worst actions, and stupid events, seem to more likely than not take place in that state?
And that’s Larry Clark’s 2001 crime drama Bully comes in. A group of teenagers living in an upper-class part of South Florida who should have all the advantages in the world, but instead find themselves getting involved in bad circles that destroy their lives. The lack of discipline and bad influences that Florida was supposed to be a haven from still manifested.
Bully is based on a real story – the murder of Bobby Kent in Weston, Florida in 1993. Bobby (Nick Stahl) is a high school dropout working with his friends, fellow dropouts Ali (Bijou Phillips), Lisa (Rachel Miner), and his best friend Marty (Brad Renfo) at a deli. Everything seems pretty normal – Bobby and Ali are coupled, as are Lisa and Marty. The four go out on a double date and end up having sex in the same car in front of each other – weird. This is the first of many cringe scenes in this movie. Later, we learn that Lisa is pregnant, presumably with Marty’s child, but she actually confesses that the child may be Bobby’s. Bobby had previously raped her after beating up Marty and knocking him unconscious. The dynamic unravels quite quickly: Bobby is the movie’s eponymous bully. The level of manipulation and control he has over the other kids becomes increasingly clear and troublesome.
Bobby’s violent outbursts are uncomfortable to watch. He taunts and physically assaults Marty, who is so worn down that he just takes the abuse. Ali and Lisa are also heavily intimidated by Bobby. At one point Bobby rapes his own girlfriend while making her watch gay porn, a clue that the core of Bobby’s problems might be his suppressed sexuality. The girls believe Bobby is sexually attracted to Marty and that is at the core of his abusive tendencies. At one point, Bobby forces Marty to go to a gay bar with him and dance naked for the patrons, a humiliation that Bobby enjoys.
Eventually, we come to a breaking point. Unable to stand the abuse any longer, Lisa suggests the group kill Bobby and dump his body in the Everglades to be eaten by alligators. The group haphazardly formulates a plan. The trio recruits several friends, including Ali’s new drug-addict boyfriend Donny (Michael Pitt), his friend Heather (Kelli Garner), and Lisa’s cousin Derek (Daniel Franzese)
After Lisa chickens out in the first attempt to kill Bobby, they recruit a friend who calls himself a hitman, another man named Derek (Leo Fitzpatrick), who agrees to kill Bobby for them. They hatch a plan to lure Bobby into the Everglades with the promise of sex with Ali, the same plan they had tried before only to have Lisa chicken out. When they arrive at the swamp, we witness the brutal and unnerving murder. Bobby is first stabbed in the neck by Donny, then Marty, releasing years of repressed anger over the abuse, slices open Bobby’s gut and cuts his throat. Hitman Derek finishes him off by beating him with a baseball bat. A stoic Lisa is the only one totally unmoved by the violence. It is clear by her apathetic reaction that she has experienced extremely traumatic abuse at the hands of Bobby beyond what we saw on camera.
After the murder, the kids leave, happy to have gotten rid of Bobby, but Marty released he has screwed up. In true “Florida Man” fashion, he left the knife he used to kill Bobby at the scene. They go to retrieve the knife only to find Bobby’s corpse being scavenged. This unsettles Marty and the others. Those who did not directly contribute to Bobby’s injuries try to convince themselves they did nothing wrong, but much like Edgar Allen Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart,” their conscience eats at them and they can’t keep the secret anymore. Lisa and her cousin tell friends what happened and Ali tips the media. Bobby’s murder is unearthed and Hitman Derek is arrested for the murder. The story could’ve ended there and the group could have let Hitman Derek take the fall, but instead everyone but Marty turns themselves in. Marty is arrested a short time later.
In the final scene of the film, the teenagers argue with each other in a courtroom like petulant children over who is actually responsible. They all end up in prison.
In real life, Marty, Donny, and Hitman Derek, because they were directly responsible for Bobby’s murder, are still serving prison sentences while the rest of the group served lighter sentences and have since been released. Lisa delivered her baby in jail, but the child was Marty’s, not Bobby’s.
Unlike Clark’s other movies, parents are a part of this storyline, but in a supporting role. The parents are involved in their children’s lives and often express interest and concerns with what their teenage children are doing, but don’t go beyond just scratching the surface. It’s clear that the parents weren’t terribly concerned that something more sinister was going on. Bobby’s parents specifically had a “not my son” mentality when digging into his brutal personality. At one point Bobby’s father comes close to having the dept of his son’s problems revealed, but dials back, instead offering Bobby a job and deciding that was enough to help him.
Was all that the side effect of living in a state where they expected order and discipline would protect or dissuade their children from this type of evil? What made me take note of this is, again, conversations I’ve had with family and friends who live or grew up in Florida. Is part of the state’s recent cultural and political turns under Gov. Ron DeSantis a result of a society that has long tried to block out its problems, only to now notice them and go full throttle into trying to fix them, often in incredibly counterproductive ways?
Florida may be a paradise, but it has the same demons as any other state. You have to be just as vigilant there as you would in the place you previously lived. The murder of Bobby Kent, and the movie about it, serves as a warning.