Billy the Kid
By Jennifer Venditti, 2007
I first saw Billy the Kid at one of my first Hot Docs Film Festival screenings. I was to finish my Film degree at York University the following year and excited to take part in what would become my favourite Toronto film festival. The film stuck with me over the years (Billy and director Jennifer Venditti are featured in the title bar of the site) and I was pleased to pick up a copy not too long ago. I rewatched the film last night.
Billy the Kid is a 2007 documentary about Billy Price, a sophomore high school student living in small-town Maine. Billy is intelligent, outspoken and loves karate, metal music and girls. He sounds like any other teenage boy, but in another way, Billy is quite different. He has an obvious social awkwardness to him; one which doctors said early on would mean he would need to be institutionalized. More testing revealed that Billy was perfectly fine to live at home with his family, which he does, and he attends a regular high school.
Venditti's film follows Billy's day to day activities, aided by a voiceover where Billy talks about his views on life, love and his personal mental health. He is mostly seen bouncing around the nearby woods or biking around the streets of his town, talking to local kids about his fascination with horror movies. A narrative takes shape when Billy meets a local girl working at a diner. With his heart aflutter, Billy woos the girl, and the magic of seeing someone with their first love is all caught on camera. All of this conjures up nostalgia for one’s own pining and high school crushes, but the film isn’t without its concerns.
One can’t help but wonder while watching Billy the Kid about exploitation in documentary. Billy’s social issues are confirmed in the DVD extras as Aspberger’s Syndrome. Venditti may not have been aware of this while filming, but she knew that something was amiss. So one has to question, is the director’s intentions sympathetic or exploitive? Billy obviously makes for a great character; his insights are profound, mature and hilarious. And Venditti’s commentary suggests that she had found someone whom we as an audience can all relate to, someone who displays all the awkwardness of coming of age as a teenager. But one can't help but wonder if she is also poking fun at Billy. There's a moment where we see Billy pick up his guitar, take his shirt off and rock out to a metal concert video on his TV. He is obviously hamming it up for the camera, but then the view is switched to outside of his window, and instead of hearing both the concert and Billy playing along, we hear just Billy. I was taken back by that small section when I rewatched the film, wondering if Venditti was intentionally teasing Billy behind his back. Or is she just showing an example of a memory we are all familiar with; one where we are back in our teenage bedrooms, doing things the rest of the world doesn't know we're doing? Whatever the reason, the film itself is a good conversation piece regarding the moral grounds of documentaries, and Venditti offers a lot of touching moments.
Billy the Kid is an enjoyable experience because we as an audience are tested by Billy's brazenness and are reminded of our own trials and triumphs when we were in high school. You can tell that Venditti does care for her subject and rewatching the film, I can tell why I was first so enamored with it when I first saw it. It's the tale of an outsider, being himself and finding his way through the ups and downs of life.
3 ½ out of 5