When I watch the film, I’m thinking: Is that really me up there?
—Billy Price, “It’s His World; She Was Just Filming It,” New York Times (9 December 2007)
The first time you see Billy Price, you’re looking directly into his wide open mouth. He pulls back from the camera, then asks, “Did you see the uvula, which is that dangly thing at the back of the mouth?” Obviously keenly aware that he’s got a camera pointed down his throat, Billy positions himself as simultaneous object and subject. He’s fine with being looked at, but he makes sure he gets his say, too.
What he has to say is unusually precise, and sometimes just unusual. How many 15-year-olds would ask you to check out their “uvulas”? A high school student in Brunswick, Maine, Billy describes himself with a list of likes and dislikes: he has a purple belt in karate and likes Kiss, ACDC, and disco too. He’s allergic to penicillin and nuts, and, he adds, as you watch him ride his bicycle down a tree lined street, “I despise drugs, I hate terrorism, I’m not a very big fan of politics. I don’t hate it, it’s just something I don’t want to get mixed up in.” Sometimes, he admits, “I think the imaginative world’s much better than the real world. There’s one difference, of course: imagination ain’t real.”
Still, as becomes clear throughout Jennifer Venditti’s documentary, Billy the Kid, Billy finds solace and energy in his imagination, as well as the many imaginative worlds that surround any kid with access to TV and the net. He loves Tim Allen and the Terminator (approximating Schwarzenegger’s accent in his recitations of dialogue: “I was sent to protect you”), and is aware that he has his own “little condition.” Like most kids, he’s frustrated that he doesn’t fit in, and suggests at one point that his bronchitis (which sometimes makes breathing difficult) is at the heart of his manifest “difference.” As it happens, though, he has a developmental disorder, which was diagnosed as Aspberger’s Syndrome (a form of autism) after filming was completed.
This diagnosis, which has appeared in commentaries on the film as well as some promotional materials, may provide viewers an explanation or “category” for Billy’s behavior. (He recalls some of his more difficult moments, his anger at his mother Penny and long-gone biological father, and Penny laments that Billy saw his dad using crack, as well as abusing her.) But the documentary, shot over eight days, remains unconcerned with the Aspberger’s diagnosis, instead serving as vehicle for his self-performances and confessions. As Billy has a particular—and not so unusual—concept of who he wants to be (a superhero, who would “get to save people who are innocent and fight those who are guilty, while sometimes you win the heart of a damsel that you rescue”), as well as a sense of his limits, he appears to use the filmmaking process as a means toward that end even as the film uses him.
This sense of use is Billy the Kid‘s most apparent rub. Some viewers, notably Variety‘s John Anderson, worry that the film is exploitative, that it participates in a generally distasteful “freak show aesthetic,” allowed in part by Billy’s youth and naïveté. But this doesn’t account for the many complications in the relationship between documentary and subject. For one thing, along with its verité look—the camera follows Billy as he attends classes, eats in the cafeteria, works out at the gym (and poses mightily before the mirror), and courts a girl named Heather—the movie also suggests collaboration with its subject. If some shots are plainly “set up” (a group of local men in truckers’ caps and jeans stand on a sidewalk and applaud Billy, passing by after he’s asked Heather to be his girlfriend, laugh a little too uproariously when he performs for them: “The years of loneliness have been murder”), this is hardly a new idea in documentary filmmaking. Indeed, Billy the Kid‘s upfrontness about the negotiations between interviewees and crew underscores rather than represses the film’s status as art, a representation with various intentions and effects.
That is, whatever you know about Billy, Heather, Penny, or his unseen stepfather (a DJ named Paul whom Billy describes as a “very great man,” even as his absence makes you wonder), is plainly shaped by the film. As often as Billy interacts with classmates or his mother, he speaks directly to the camera, as when he describes his occasional need to “take refuge” with his grandmother across town, or notes, “Anger is a pretty idiotic thing ‘cause it makes you do a lot of dumb things… More than once I’ve punched at my reflections. Sometimes I don’t like myself”). The film includes a few moments apart from Billy, such as Penny’s recollection of his extreme mobility “in utero” (“like something you’d see in Alien”) and his early temper tantrums, one of which left her with a black eye. Such interviews tend to situate Billy in a context, suggesting his interest in movies or art (he and his mom share an affection for Van Gogh) is much like that of the people around him. In other words, Billy’s less different than he feels.
Still, the film doesn’t look away from Billy’s occasional awkwardness or his immersion in his first feelings of love. “Why is it when I’m attracted to [Heather],” he asks Penny, “my heart beats like it’s about to burst?” They sit in the backyard as the family dog scampers between and around them, Penny pushing him away or trying to get him to sit, the frame made rambunctious and antic during this bit of mother-son intimacy. “It’s part of growing up,” she smiles.
It’s a standard moment in another documentary, observing mother and son interact. But what makes Billy the Kid extraordinary is not that it grants seeming access to such private moments—or even more compellingly, moments when Billy defines and redefines himself—but that it makes clear as well the inherently public nature of the filmmaking process. Walking through the snowy woods alone, Billy recites Robert Frost (“Nothing old can stay”), then explains what it means (“Beware of changes”). It’s a painfully self-conscious performance even as it speaks to the moment: he’s a teenager feeling rejected, looking for reasons, history, a structure.
When Billy rides the school bus a few minutes later, the camera hovers from a few seats in front of him, so he’s flawlessly framed, his face half-obscured by a seat-back: “All this time,” his voiceover says, “I thought my brain, my imagination, was the scary place. I realize now that the whole world’s the scary place.” This is what documentaries do: they shape experience for consumption. No matter whom the filmmaker or subject might imagine as audience, the camera reconfigures the conversation, the action, the self-presentation. Billy the Kid keeps that relationship—between subject and camera—in focus.