B+

Billy The Kid

The subject of Jennifer Venditti's documentary Billy The Kid is a talkative 15-year-old so open-hearted and self-possessed that at times he's almost painful to watch. Venditti, a respected casting director making her directorial debut, met Billy while looking for "normal" Maine high-schoolers to appear in an independent short, and was taken with this self-proclaimed outsider with a college-level vocabulary, a trailer-park wardrobe, and dark moods. So she followed him around his small Maine town for a few months, filming his awkward attempts to interact with his peers, most of whom don't know what he's talking about when he drops references to John Wayne, Cats, French impressionists, or Kiss. ("I think one of my sister's friends' dads like Kiss," one says.) Billy's always on the brink of creeping people out, so when he tries to make friends—and especially when he meets a girl that he'd like to make his girlfriend—it's hard not to hiss at him to shut up before he blows it.

But like a lot of teenagers, Billy sees himself as the center of a tiny universe, which is why he can't understand how inappropriate it is to tell the stepfather of his potential girlfriend all about his love for slasher films, or about his alcoholic dad. In some ways, Billy The Kid is about that familiar stretch of adolescence when nearly everyone is a social misfit, trying to learn how to fit in, or deciding whether they want to. Venditti gets her camera in close and captures every wince-inducing moment, while hardly ever announcing her own presence as a documentarian. In fact, if the film has a significant flaw, it's that Venditti never explains in the film how she found Billy, or why she's interested in him. Billy The Kid often plays more like an extended home movie than something intentional and artful.

But there's something to be said for Venditti's ability to build the kind of trust with a subject necessary to get full participation. (The movie's unsung hero is Billy's mom, who understands her son well enough to let him pursue his interests in AC/DC and serial killers without automatically assuming he's a sociopath.) The access Venditti gets to Billy lets us see him bloom as a full-blown character, from the simple-seeming kid at the beginning of the movie, who insists he isn't political, but adds, "I despise drugs and I hate terrorism," to the lovestruck boy who takes a walk with the object of his affection and says, "It's so dark outside, it reminds me of the moors. Well, the last scene of An American Werewolf In London."

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