Billy (James Wirt), the anguished painter writhing and moaning through Billy Bates, is what trailer-speak might call a “tortured artist” — a man for whom misery is a prerequisite for creation.
He spends a lot of time, it seems, pottering around his stylishly bedraggled studio apartment, staring meaningfully into the middle distance, as one does, alternately brooding and sobbing; how and when he manages to get any work done is left to the imagination. The work itself is rather dire: black-and-white photographs scuffed up and luridly graffitied, about as edgy as a decal on the underside of a skateboard.
Nevertheless, Billy’s star is on the rise. Early in the film, he meets the ravishing Kaia (Savannah Welch), a folk singer, at a nightclub where his work is on display, and soon invites her home with him. What follows is not so much steamy tryst as impromptu therapy session, with Kaia playing the literal armchair psychologist — scrutinizing letters from Billy’s mother, indulging his weepy reminiscences. It’s quite the first date.
The director, Jennifer DeLia, doesn’t seem aware of the humor inherent in this scenario, which may be why, despite proving thoroughly ridiculous, Billy Bates remains an unabashedly self-serious film. Dismal though their counseling session may be, it’s when Billy and Kaia finally get into bed together that the film reaches its nadir: In a slow-motion montage we find Billy screaming and undulating in black-and-white, as Kaia asks, in echoed refrain, if he remembers his mother’s funeral. “Fuck Freud,” Billy says gravely. No kidding.