Billy the Kid(Zeitgeist Films, 10.28.2008)
Billy is fifteen years old and he loves KISS, slasher flicks and the soundtrack to Cats. He wears short shorts, sports a ponytailed rattail and holds a purple belt in karate. He’s the living amalgam of every socially agonizing moment you’ve ever experienced. The kid’s got problems: his abusive father split long ago, he doesn’t appear to have any legit friends, his failed crushes are starting to take their heart-wrenching toll -- and yet he sustains an awareness that most adults lack. Billy has no desire to fit in or be anything he isn’t, which in many ways makes him more emotionally mature than his classmates, who refer to him as "dumb" and, even worse, "uncool."
Billy is also diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, which is never specified in this doc, but it is surely alluded to. During the film's festival run, it concluded with an explanation of Billy’s condition, but this was ultimately removed by director Jennifer Venditti (in order to steer clear of scapegoat labeling). Wise decision, as this is not a medical awareness film, nor does it impose any heavy-handed empathy on Billy’s behalf. As Venditti points out, the days in Billy's life that she documented hold a mirror to the audience, functioning as a litmus test for our own personal identification with his unusual social conduct.
Many will hopefully view Billy as the hero he yearns to be, overcoming setbacks and remaining resilient whilst navigating his small American town. The film begins somewhat aimlessly, but soon evolves into a story of young love in addition to an unpretentious peek into the psyche of a unique protagonist. What will become of Billy? Who knows, but the DVD offers a one-year-later glimpse of a slightly more mature and bushier-haired Billy as he reflects on the film, among other things.
Also included is a commentary with Venditti and, oddly enough, Ryan Gosling, who has nothing to do with the film, other than being an admirer (and a friend of the director's). In a pre-commentary disclaimer, Venditti states that she doesn’t believe in DVD commentaries because she feels that films should speak for themselves. This sentiment is reinforced by her thin comments and the track's emphasis on Gosling’s praise.
The DVD sports a candid interview session with Venditti, who has some interesting insights in regards to John Anderson’s scornful Variety review. Lastly, we get music selections from the film and an 8-page booklet with two short essays (one by filmmaker Miranda July) and handwritten lists of Billy's top ten albums and movies (Troy? Really, Billy?).
Award-winning and critically adored (Variety notwithstanding), this doc is definitely worth your time. If you think Michael Cera's awkward, brace yourself -- Billy makes Cera look like Cary Grant -- but love it or hate it, you’ll be hard-pressed not to identify with some of the awkwardness on display, no matter how cool and confident you were back in the day. -- Neil Karassik