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“Billy the Kid”

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By Matt Singer

IFC News

[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 grandmother…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.

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

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Disaster Hut

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Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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