Judge Joel Pearce makes his own truth.
I'm not black, I'm not white, I'm not foreign. Just different in the mind.
A personal documentary in the purest sense of the term, Billy the Kid is the debut film of casting director Jennifer Vendetti, who met her subject in a high school during a shoot, then decided to make him the center of his own film. That subject is Billy, a unique loner who is struggling with anger issues and desperately wants to connect with other people. Unfortunately, she is more interested in him as a subject than she is in making a cohesive film that actually says something. While many have responded well to the film, others may find it disappointing or even offensive.
Some films are protected by critics, treated as sacred objects that should not be challenged. I often feel that way when I'm watching those opaque art films, beautifully photographed but incapable of delivering meaning. While art films are often protected to preserve the critics' snobdom, films like Billy the Kid are protected for the opposite reason. Billy is a real kid, who has definitely seen this movie made about himself, and could well stumble over this review. So could first-time filmmaker Jennifer Venditti, who unquestionable means well and genuinely believes her notion that a documentarian can shine a camera like a flashlight of truth on a subject, capturing its real essence.
In fact, in the interview included on the DVD, she reads the following quotation, originally from Albert Maysles:
"As a documentarian I happily place my fate and faith in reality. It is my caretaker, the provider of subjects, themes, experiences—all endowed with the power of truth and the romance of discovery, and the closer I adhere to reality, the more honest and authentic my tale is. After all, the knowledge of the real world is exactly what we need to better understand, and possibly to love one another. It's my way of making the world a better place."
While I hate to go against someone like Maysles with critical guns blazing, I think there is also some value in the postmodern and scientific realization that the process of observation alone is often enough to change things. This probably wasn't that important when Maysles was making Gimme Shelter, since the subjects were so used to being in the public spotlight, already part of a public world. Billy the Kid, however, captured a few short days in the life of a strangely anti-social teenager, a person so marginalized that he is not used to conversing with new people.
Many people have argued that what makes Billy so magical is his willingness to be completely sincere and candid in front of the camera. What is not mentioned anywhere in the film is that Billy has Asperger's Syndrome, a fact that has crucial significance. I've had the fortune to teach several students with Asperger's, and they have been some of the most intelligent and delightful students I've come across. Spending time with them, though, you start to realize that in public situations, they are always performing—because they have a difficult time empathizing with the emotions of others. Realistically, though, we are probably getting as close to Billy as most acquaintances would.
While Billy shows virtual immunity to the camera's presence, the people around him are very much impacted by the camera's presence. While Venditti met Billy the first time in the lunch room, sitting alone, ignored by his peers, there is a sequence of the film where the cool kids invite Billy to sit with them. Do they suddenly realize that he's a nice kid? Do they feel guilty for ignoring him? No. Billy is being followed around by a movie camera, and embracing him is the only way to get in on his 15 minutes of fame. Much more disturbing is his relationship with Heather, a girl who has some issues of her own. Over the course of two days, Billy runs into her, falls in love with her, and asks her to be his girlfriend. Throughout these encounters, she is spurred on by everyone around her, a movie camera in her face. Neither child has ever had a relationship before, and I can't imagine it would have played out the way it does here had the filmmakers not been involved. It ends in heartbreak for Billy and embarrassment for Heather, which I believe oversteps the responsibility and rights of a documentary filmmaker.
You may need to see this one for yourself. Other people have been wildly impressed with the reality and truth in the film, but I find it to be a much more revealing study of our obsession with the celebrification of regular people than it is a revealing look at a particular individual. While I do have complaints about the film, however, I can't fault the DVD, which is a great effort from Zeitgeist. The anamorphic video transfer looks great for the budget. The sound isn't always audible, but any of these sequences are subtitled for us. There are quite a few extras, including an interview with Vendetti, a commentary track, soundtrack selections, and another short film by Vendetti. For fans of the film, this is definitely worth picking up.
Ultimately, though, I can't recommend Billy the Kid. The film desperately needs a thesis, and it doesn't even begin to accomplish what it sets out to do. Even worse, it causes too much collateral damage, and turns a pretty special kid into a pretty uncomfortable display of strangeness, which he totally doesn't deserve. He should have just been left alone.
Vendetti obviously has a lot of passion for revealing the life of ordinary people. Next time, she needs to find a clearer way to show what she's thinking.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
• Audio Commentary
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