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December 3, 2007

Kid You Not

Director Venditti on the craft and controversy of Billy the Kid

No jacket required: Billy Price, the subject of the documentary Billy the Kid (Photo: Shane Sigler -- Eight Films / Isotope Films)

Billy Price drops epiphanies like he's at war. Or an adolescent. Not that there's much difference. "If you look in my eyes you'll see a kid trying to be what he'll never be," you can hear the 15-year-old say. Or, "Sometimes you have to hurt a little to know the truth." Or, "A good piece of entertainment is always hard to come by in high school."

The lattermost admission is the ironic counterweight to Billy the Kid, Jennifer Venditti's documentary chronicle of roughly one week in Billy's life as a student, son and short-lived boyfriend in Maine. (It opens Wednesday in New York.) The film is both good and entertaining in the most primal senses imaginable: its direct cinema roots nurturing all the gangly awkwardness and candor of its subject, Billy compels compassion, humor, pity and revulsion on both sides of the camera. It's a vacuum into which haters will hyperventilate their disapproval while admirers gaze on speechlessly from the outside. Is Billy being exploited? Is his story for real? Who's manipulating who?

Questions without answers, in other words -- which doesn't make them any easier for Venditti to contemplate herself.

"When you first show the film, you're so sensitive," said Venditti, a full-time, SoHo-based casting director who premiered her feature debut last March at South by Southwest, where it won the fest's Best Documentary prize. " 'Why did they laugh at this? Why are they not responding to this?' ... [But] once I put it out there -- whether it's positive or negative -- as long as people are feeling something and it's affecting them, that makes me feel like I accomplished something. In the beginning I just wanted people to like it. You're so vulnerable -- you want people to see it the way you want them to see it. And what this experience has taught me is that there is no one way I want people to see it."

"Experience" itself is a funny word. Billy sprung from an almost accidental introduction Venditti made while casting Carter Smith's acclaimed short film Bugcrush in Maine. A cafeteria table of bullies pointed to a boy, a former target, across the room. His personality -- the unalloyed bluntness, the halting digressions, the haunted eyes -- captivated her. Teachers and students cautioned Venditti about Billy's emotional volatility. "All they could say was: 'He's weird. He's a freak. He has problems. He's complex,' " Venditti told The Reeler. "I decided it was almost an experiment for myself: Instead of having a word to understand him, I'm going to try to understand him from his point of view."

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A few months after his momentary appearance in Bugcrush, Billy regrouped with Venditti as part of a brief segment for her own film; Maine was the first stop on a road trip following five subjects in five locations. In five days she and cinematographer Donald Cumming captured the deep mutual devotion between Billy and his mother Penny, the fraught social dynamics of his high school life and, most stunningly, the blossoming and dissolution of Billy's first love. En route to her second location in West Virginia, Venditti couldn't shake Billy's story. Instinct told her it stood alone.

And for better or worse, it does. Venditti bristles at the suggestion that the trajectory of Billy's life in the lens was anything but natural, as though the exaggerated artifice of a sensitive, movie-crazed teenager (particularly one diagnosed with the even more intensely obsessive behavioral symptoms of Asperger's syndrome, as Billy was after the film was completed) compromises the film's authenticity or an audience's capacity for empathy. Yet there's a difference between the scammy gimmickry of something like Rupert Murray's 2005 amnesia puzzler Unknown White Male -- which all but fetishizes its incredulity -- and Venditti's thoughtful observation. In literally keeping her distance from Billy and his new girlfriend Heather (usually across the street, or around the corner), and in sharing Penny's admonition to avoid rushing their relationship, she engages the viewer's concern and sympathy.

Jennifer Venditti and Billy Price at the SXSW premiere of Billy the Kid (Photo: Eight Films / Isotope Films)

Of course you know what's coming, which is where the proximity gets a little perverse. "I think that he would have done that if we weren’t there," Venditti said of Billy's courting. "He met Heather, and after that he would come up to me on the way home and say, 'I think tomorrow we should do a scene where we're holding hands walking down the street.' Of course we didn't do those things, but he was going with it in his head and getting into it. But he would have gone up to her anyway. And because we were there to capture it, of course he got into it and was thinking of other ways he could put things into it. But he's making that film when we're not there, also. I mean his life is that way."

Hence the 007-esque bow tie Billy wears to his first choral performance or his rock-star posturing while accompanying a Kiss DVD on his electric guitar. The moments aren't as unguarded as they are unconscious; even as a doc subject he aspires to save the day and get the girl. He's a factory of one-liners both canny ("Nobody hurts my mother and gets away with it!") and heartbreakingly earnest ("There's always the future," he resolves for his unrealized ambitions for superheroism), and Venditti and Cumming are there to capture them. He's never anyone's victim; at worst he's an idealized amalgam of insecurity and potential. But ultimately -- and especially in our own heads -- aren't we all?

"It's about how we see each other -- the fact that there's a story behind these faces that we're judging," Venditti told me. "It's about how no matter what issue you're going through, we're all dealing with the same things in life. We've all been there before."



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