The freak-show aesthetic so prevalent in modern culture doesn’t have a better exemplar than “Billy the Kid,” Jennifer Venditti’s debut doc and one of the more irresponsible eruptions in the current rash of populist nonfiction cinema. Still, the pic should have no problem finding an aud, given its subject — an awkwardly charming, though obviously disturbed, teenager, whose every tiny triumph is treated like the discovery of the genome. But anything beyond a casual, surface reading of the film reveals an appallingly callous act of exploitation.
Billy Price is a 15-year-old Maine high-schooler who lives with his mother Penny and a stepfather we never see. His history is painful and marked by abuse — Billy apparently took a steak knife to his biological father after the latter assaulted his mother, but as a baby, he also broke his mother’s nose during a violent temper tantrum. One early diagnosis predicted permanent institutionalization; he escaped that fate, and functions, but not well. And certainly not comfortably.
Popular on Variety
That Venditti thinks it appropriate to follow this kid around — as he absorbs abuse at school, makes excrutiatingly inappropriate comments to almost everyone her meets and stumbles through an awkward courtship of a local girl (who has her own problems) — shows a willful blindness to the agony of adolescence in general, and a particular myopia concerning Billy.
Although he’s supposed to represent some form of heroic nonconformity, Billy is neither old enough, nor sufficiently in control of himself, for his eccentricities to have any meaning. Instead, he comes across as a kid starved for attention, hungry for love, eager for validation, and craving a father figure (he states, far too often, how much he loves his unseen stepdad, whose absence from the film ultimately marks him as wise). That anything about Billy could be viewed as cute — and that’s how we’re supposed to see him — is an insult to the audience.
The major fallacy about “Billy the Kid” is its masquerade as verite filmmaking. On the contrary: Almost every scene is a set-up, with sequences involving Billy and his would-be girlfriend, Heather, shot from multiple angles, but not, it seems, multiple cameras. That the film feels scripted should shock no one. Venditti apparently spent all of eight days shooting, hardly time to get anyone comfortable, so even the scenes of mother and son are stiff and inhibited, as if being observed by a stranger.
Freak-show docs, of which there are plenty, are popular because they make audiences happy they’re not the subject of the film.
The only responsible note in “Billy the Kid” is that when Billy checks out multiple books on serial killers from his school library, someone has the sense to make an issue of it. You don’t want to wish that the same librarian had worked at Virginia Tech, but the thought certainly crosses your mind.
Production values are adequate.