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Movie Review: Billy the Kid

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Growing up is hard enough without a camera documenting your adolescent insecurities and discoveries. How would you handle the attention if you were a misfit teenager and suddenly found yourself the subject of a feature film? What if that wasn’t the least of your problems? One very special sophomore answers this question under remarkable circumstances in Jennifer Venditti’s Billy The Kid, a painful, awkward documentary that was one of the best films of 2008, and is now available for download on iTunes.

Venditti worked as a casting director before making this, her first feature film, and that was how she discovered Billy Price sitting by himself in a school cafeteria in rural Maine. He was a school freak, prone to spouting a wisdom beyond his years as well as angry outbursts. He and his mother open up their lives to the camera, with all the awkward parts of young love, the difficulties of parenting, and a sometimes harrowing background of domestic abuse.

Billy’s chivalrous side may stem from wanting to protect his mother from his abusive biological father, but his willingness to help is bigger than that: he wishes he could help his now absent father kick his alcoholism, and naturally he wants to find and save a damsel in distress.

Billy was later diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism, but the film simply observes his emotional issues without diagnosis. The first time I saw this film I was worried that the director was exploiting Billy, but in subsequent interviews, Venditti has noted that Billy thinks of this as his film as well. The camera intrudes on some of Billy’s most awkward moments but, even if the camera follows him, he also leads the camera, and it behooves the teenager vying for attention to put on a show. The Billy the Kid show is moving, touching, and provocative, and you can’t help root for this smart, awkward yet charming kid. As he tries to impress the viewer with his knowledge of Kiss and his rock-and-roll ‘tude, whether or not he’s talking about Robert Frost or Monet or John Wayne, he’s also trying out his own voice. When Billy finally asserts his privacy and waves off the camera, he’s no longer putting on a show for somebody; he’s living his life.

The unobtrusive soundtrack features an unresolved minor key guitar figure, well suited to the unresolved melancholy of growing up. The movie appropriately ends with a sequence that finds Billy in the spotlight. When you see Billy on an empty stage, miming a hat-tip, you somehow feel the gravitas of a career entertainer; or maybe the awe of a boy-child approaching the stage and wondering how he will handle the spotlight of everyday life. I think he’ll do alright.

Download Billy the Kid on iTunes here.

 

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About Pat Padua

Pat Padua is a writer, photographer, native Washingtonian, and Oxford comma defender. The Washington Post called him "a talented, if quirky, photographer." Pat has also contributed to the All Music Guide, Cinescene, and DCist, where he is currently senior film critic.