Billy Price is a 15-year-old boy living in rural Maine. He’s also THAT KID you went to high school with— you know, the one who sports a rattail, the one who “freaks out” in class, the one who sits in the corner of the lunchroom and snarfs chips with his mouth open. He’s the one who ventures beyond the conventional borders of dorkiness into the lonely desert of hopeless weirdness. Jennifer Venditti follows him there.
Her documentary, Billy the Kid, starts with a shot of Billy cracking up as he shows the camera his uvula: “It’s that dangly thing at the back of the mouth,” he says helpfully. Billy then goes on to provide a succinct, hilarious, and utterly unself-conscious narrative of his life and times. He loves Kiss and karate and has “a big interest in girls,” but he tries not to be “a jerk about it.” When his cat died, he was “at war with myself . . . fighting my emotions.” Slowly, darker revelations emerge. His stepfather is chronically absent from both the film and Billy’s life. His biological father smoked crack and abused his mother (a gentle and weary woman who clarifies some of Billy’s wilder assertions). When her son was a toddler, doctors told her that he was so profoundly retarded he would have to be institutionalized.
That turned out not to be true, but still, nobody knows quite what Billy “is.” He’s relegated to “special” classes, but he also has a GRE-worthy vocabulary, an encyclopedic knowledge of certain topics (glam-rock bands and serial killers, to name two), and a mournfully wise outlook on life. Like an adolescent Don Quixote, he rides (his bike) through town, looking for bullies to beat up and exposing a chivalrous streak a mile wide. He refuses to shoot the female adversaries who appear in his favorite video game, and he rues the fact that “unfortunately, I’ve never been the savior of a damsel.” When he finally does encounter a damsel—a young waitress named Heather, who might be the only person in town more awkward than Billy—he discovers that she may not want saving quite as much as he wants to save her. Given the intensity of Billy’s emotions—he falls fast and hard for Heather—the condensed affair fits snugly into the film’s natural story arc, and is more romantic and comedic than even the slickest romantic comedy.
This is Vendetti’s first film, after a decade as a casting director. Perhaps this explains her remarkable ability to distill a character in one well-placed shot, a quality that more than makes up for her slightly amateurish camera skills. I have seen more than 25 documentaries this year, and after a while they all start to run together, both structurally and thematically.
Billy the Kid is utterly original in both respects. As for Billy, the kid? It doesn’t take a prophet to see trouble in his future. But we’re also left with no doubt that someday he will save someone for real.