Rolf de Heer’s Bad Boy Bubby was a controversial art-house success when released in 1993; audience response to de Heer’s tale of an abused man-child belatedly let loose on society at the age of 35 was polarised, but the film picked up five awards at the Venice Film Festival and became an underground cult item in the United States when a commercial distribution deal fell through. Notoriety in the UK was ensured when the BBFC ordered 20 seconds of footage to be trimmed, fearing that a scene in which a cat is choked to death with cling film was a genuine act of animal cruelty, although de Heer has since provided evidence to show that this was not the case, and the offending footage has been restored to this re-issue.
The almost unbearably claustrophobic opening stretch takes place entirely in the squalid flat where Bubby (Nicolas Hope) lives with his depraved mother, a vile woman who alternately scolds her son and uses him for sex. She has made him fearful of the outside world by claiming that the air is poisonous, and puts on a gas mask whenever she goes out to maintain the lie. This barely functional domestic existence degenerates into chaos when Bubby’s father, a lapsed priest, returns to the fold, causing a rift in the relationship between the ‘child’ and his mother. After realising that the air outside is not toxic, Bubby kills his parents and, in the freewheeling mid-section, sets out to explore urban Adelaide. He encounters a variety of characters that range from a sexually promiscuous Salvation Army girl to a cash-strapped rock band and a scientist who denies the existence of God. The final third lurches into redemptive sentimentality, as the scientist convinces Bubby that he has to take responsibility for his actions.
As with Robert Zemeckis’s Forrest Gump (1994), a less confrontational and more widely popular film about a simpleton’s odyssey through modern times, it is debatable as to whether de Heer is actually concerned about Bubby’s plight, as the character exists in a sustained state of arrested development. Instead, he offers a social commentary, with Bubby serving as a child-like viewpoint from which to observe the positive and negative attributes of society. Bubby understands little, and ‘learns’ about life by mimicking those around him, often with anti-social consequences. An act of police brutality leads to Bubby stealing money from a petrol station by assaulting the attendant, and his attempt to pick up a lonely woman in a restaurant by using the salacious words of his father results in him being thrown into jail for sexual harassment. De Heer embraced the episodic nature of his narrative, utilising the skills of 32 cinematographers to capture the scenes that take place outside the family flat, and the dense sound design recalls the unsettling industrial hum of David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977). Despite these technical achievements, and Hope’s remarkable performance, Bad Boy Bubby struggles to maintain narrative momentum, and the concluding reaffirmation of familial values seems strangely hollow considering the extremity that has preceded it.