[5 January 2010]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
In an interview on the DVD Extras for the outstanding documentary ‘Billy the Kid’, director Jennifer Venditti discusses how a review by Variety’s John Anderson made her question the motives for making the film. Anderson’s scathing and misguided commentary insinuated that the filmmakers had been ‘exploitative’ in their pursuit of Billy’s story (LINK). But in the end, the director believes that this event, in a sense, empowered her to stand by the film’s original story.
Billy The Kid, at 84 minutes long, is the debut documentary feature from casting director turned filmmaker, Jennifer Venditti. Shot in a Verité style, the picture follows a skinny and awkward tenth-grader called Billy Price. Billy lives in rural Maine in a trailer with his mother and his less than enthusiastic stepfather. Despite his modest surroundings, Billy feels different from most kids his age. He is volatile, foul-mouthed, and overtly passionate about things; he is obsessed with rock music, serial killers, and sports a rattail. We follow this unlikely hero as he masquerades through the banal humdrum of adolescent life. Through these observations, we become privy to the difficulties that face the protagonist. “I was born different from others, different in the mind!’ he professes near the beginning of the film.
Billy is fonder of the imaginary world, and expresses his disappointment with reality. This isolation from conformist suburbia underpins the narrative from start to finish, and is what makes the film so affecting. The story, is not as one would expect, concerned with how Billy differs mentally from children his age (Billy was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome after the film was completed). Rather, the filmmaker consciously chooses not to make any comment about his disability. Instead, she makes a political statement about how society generally (especially at a young age) encourages us to conform to limiting, and boring conventions.
Venditi wants to persuade us to look beyond this. Indeed, the discourse of the film seems to suggest that ‘boxes’ won’t help children like Billy, or any of us for that matter. As such, the emphasis here is on the exciting journey that Billy takes. The filmmaker wants to show viewers and other adolescents who are Billy’s age what they are missing out on by succumbing to societal norms. This is evidenced by Billy’s free form observations about the world, which are articulate, humorous and enlightening all at the same time.
This is not to say that the film is entirely sweet. There are some dark, unnerving scenes in the piece, surrounding discussion of Billy’s violent upbringing. And as well, the rickety camera work is so engrossing that it can often make viewers feel like they are intruding on Billy’s private life. Still, Billy the Kid is a heartbreaking human story – an achievement that is worth discovering.