By Matt Singer
[Photo: “Billy the Kid,” Elephant Eye Films, 2007]
The first thing we notice about Billy is his eyes, because they never stop moving. When we first meet our titular 15-year-old hero, he’s seated in the backseat of a moving car, making jokes and chatting up a storm. But if he’s acting like he’s comfortable in front of the camera, his eyes tell a different story, darting left to the car window and right to the person behind the camera; up to the ceiling, down to his feet. Funny as he is, there’s maybe something just a wee bit off about Billy.
That air of oddness, coupled with a natural affinity for honest self-assessment, are almost certainly what drew director Jennifer Venditti to Billy. Looking for “real kids” (italics hers, per the press notes) as part of her day job as a New York City casting director, Venditti discovered Billy in a Maine high school cafeteria. After hearing about him from a bunch of bullies, she introduced herself. “Within seconds,” she writes in her director’s statement, “I was both awed and unnerved by his personality.” Despite or perhaps in spite of the other students’ taunts, Billy got cast and eventually became the subject of this film as well.
His life, simplistic as it might seem on paper, is more than enough to carry “Billy the Kid,” particularly when shot by Venditti with a remarkable level of access to (and intimacy with) the main characters. Billy’s conversations with the two most important women in his life his patient-beyond-belief mother and the object of his affections, Heather are, in a world that’s grown tolerant to the sort of “reality” portrayed on “The Hills,” more than a breath of fresh air. They’re like a sucker punch to the stomach, knocking you senseless with their candor and, above all, their true-to-life awkwardness. One rapturously uncomfortable scene finds Billy, who is an utter gentleman but totally clueless about woman, wooing his beloved Heather and trying to impress her family all at the same time (“You must be Heather’s grandmotherÃ¢â‚¬Â¦I’m sure she’s mentioned me!”). As more and more members of Heather’s clan file in and out of their coffee shop, the scene goes on and on, at least ten minutes of screen-time, morphing into a mesmerizing cross between an Arlo Guthrie song and a “Peanuts” comic strip.
Still, it’s not all roses and goofy teenage pining. Even before Billy’s now-absent father abused him, he had anger issues and troubles in school so extensive one psychologist told his mom to have him committed. (The pictures of the dad scattered throughout Billy’s home blur out his face, a tactic likely due to legal reasons that nevertheless adds a poignant element to Billy’s stories.) Venditti witnesses a few of Billy’s creepier moments personally, most acutely when, after his first on-camera interaction with Heather, he retreats to a bathroom where we hear him whisper the word “Death…” over and over. Those who saw it might notice that the abused past and penchant for wearing masks resemble Rob Zombie’s conception of the young Michael Myers in his version of “Halloween.”
But Venditti’s aim isn’t to vilify or condemn Billy, only to portray honestly the complex life of a real American teenager, blemishes and all (though it should be noted that for whatever other real problems Billy has, acne is not one of them). Billy’s confused and, yeah, maybe a little unsettling at times, but he’s also well-intentioned, honorable, funny and smarter that you expect. Like another similarly potent documentary from earlier this year, “The King of Kong,” “Billy the Kid” finds relatability and universality in a story of outcasts. I’m not ashamed to say I had some moments in my youth worthy of Billy the Kid, and even a few that put him to shame. We’re all Billy, in some ways. Except maybe those shifty eyes. Billy should really get those checked out.