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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Every mother's son

Unaffected, spontaneous doc captures the traumas of a lonely teen spaz

Posted By on Wed, Feb 27, 2008 at 12:00 AM

Most teens know that it's not a good idea to tell the father of the girl you hope to date about your favorite slasher movies or how your biological dad is an alcoholic. Not Billy P. No topic is verboten for this precocious, achingly earnest 15-year-old, so he talks and talks and talks. About Kiss, serial killers, karate, French painters and rescuing damsels in distress. Endlessly quoting action movie catchphrases, it's as if Billy has been playing to the camera all his life.

Like a teenage Don Quixote, he cruises streets of his small Maine community, looking for maidens to protect and villains to thwart. His is an almost holy sense of righteousness, whether refusing to shoot female characters in his favorite video game, pining over the death of his beloved cat or vowing to protect his ever-patient mom from her long-absent ex-husband. Billy knows he's different. Despite his painful vulnerability, you can't help but be impressed by his eloquence and insight.

Of course, there are darker currents working in Billy's life. As a toddler, doctors advised Mom that he'd probably have to be institutionalized. His biological dad was an abusive crack-smoking trucker. His stepfather is noticeably absent, though mother and son constantly speak of him with love and affection. Things have not been easy for Billy.

But more than a portrait of dysfunction and Asperger's Syndrome (which Billy was diagnosed with after filming was completed), casting director-turned-filmmaker Jennifer Venditti's Billy the Kid puts its focus on the profoundly raw and unfiltered clumsiness of adolescence. With his trailer-park wardrobe and rattail, sophisticated vocabulary and darting eyes, Billy may be one of those kids — an exaggerated example of teenage lonely weirdness — but it's nearly impossible not to feel sharp pangs of recognition as he painfully struggles to fit in. Billy perfectly embodies the epic sense of frustration, embarrassment, hope and disappointment that accompanies puberty.

Though it could have easily descended into a freak show, Venditti's smart and intimate doc is far less concerned with how the world deals with Billy's bizarre behavior than with how Billy deals with the world. And, as you might expect, this intensely emotional motormouth desperately loves. Zooming in on every wince-inducing moment, Venditti follows Billy's successful attempt to woo someone nearly as awkward as he — a 16-year-old named Heather — who, unfortunately, isn't quite prepared for such undying devotion.

As documentaries go, Billy the Kid is completely authentic and original, effectively wielding its home movie sensibilities. From its opening shot of Billy's uvula to the film's haphazard coda, every encounter feels unaffected and spontaneous. If there's a shortcoming, it's Venditti's willful lack of intrusion. Without setup or comment as to what brought her to Billy, her film has no context. Still, as an uncomfortable microcosm of contemporary American adolescence, you can't beat her poignantly — often hilariously — unself-conscious subject.

Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 28, and at 9:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Feb. 29-March 1. Call 313-833-3237.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to


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