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Inner workings of the picked-on kid

'Billy' is an intimate portrait of a teen in rural Maine who is, well, the different one.

June 23, 2007|Gina Piccalo | Times Staff Writer

Billy Price is the weird kid at his high school, the one who walks funny and sits alone at lunch.

But get him talking, as first-time director Jennifer Venditti did in her debut documentary "Billy the Kid," and this gangly 15-year-old from rural Maine reveals a startling sensitivity to the world and a sad wisdom about his place in it.

"I try to look all tough and cold and emotionless on the outside, but the eyes give it away," Billy says in the film. "If you look in the eyes, you'll see a kid that's trying to be what he'll never be."

The film, which opens at the Los Angeles Film Festival Sunday night, centers on Venditti's first four days with Billy in the summer of 2005, when he meets a girl, falls in love and suffers his first heartbreak -- the quintessential adolescent passage set to the anthem rock of KISS. It's a convenient story arc that has raised suspicion that the documentary was fabricated. But Venditti and Billy's mother, Penny Baker, steadfastly deny it. This high drama, they say, is just how Billy experiences the world. (The filmmaker consulted psychologists and received various speculative diagnoses for his condition, including Asperger's syndrome and high-functioning autism.)

"Billy was going through a lot of stuff, and it was just very fortuitous for them," said Baker, 38. "He'd met a girl. There were issues with boys at school. She just happened to be there to catch it."

Venditti met Billy in his school cafeteria while casting extras for a short film. A group of bullies pointed him out, she said. The moment she and Billy started talking, she was struck by his odd, twitchy demeanor, his precocious interest in everything and his refusal to compromise his own needs to be accepted by his peers. Initially, Venditti said, she was driven to understand Billy's disability, but after a while she started to see a certain beauty in his imperfections.

"That's when I decided I wanted this film to be about life through the eyes of this outsider who wants the same things all of us want but doesn't know how to conform to get them," she said.

After lots of long talks with Baker, Venditti and cameraman Donald Cummings (also the lead singer of the Virgins) went to Maine and filmed Billy in the summer and the following winter for a total of eight days.

Billy always wore a microphone when they filmed, and Venditti said they never turned off the camera. They caught him dodging insults in the halls at school, eating lunch alone, awkwardly attempting to mingle with his peers. They watched Billy repeatedly tell complete strangers how much he loves a stepfather, a local radio DJ named Paul Baker, who is completely absent from the film.

At home, Billy and his mother analyze his differentness and recall his sad childhood, marred by a violent, drug-addicted father who abandoned them years ago. At age 4, Billy lunged at his father with a steak knife in an attempt to protect his mother. Today, Penny and Billy share a mobile home with Paul and Billy's younger brother, Ethan.

"I think the film will help others who have pain similar to me," Billy said in a recent phone conversation. "People who feel alone. People are still shunning me. I get a lot of that still. People look at me differently. In school, I was basically the kid who sat alone at a table by himself. I hope it will help a lot of kids who are in the same situation."

When Billy meets Heather, a 16-year-old with a disability of her own, his attempts to engage and impress her are endearing and excruciating. One moment, he's surreptitiously flexing his biceps as he brags about bodybuilding. The next, he's whispering a strange "death" mantra to himself in the restroom.

Later, Venditti captures Billy alone in his tiny room with an electric guitar strapped to his bare chest, aping Gene Simmons' moves in a KISS concert video. After Simmons and Paul Stanley watched the film, they granted Venditti festival rights to their music, she said.

Variety's John Anderson called "Billy the Kid" "a setup" masquerading as cinema verite, and criticized Venditti's portrait as "inappropriate," showing "willful blindness to the agony of adolescence in general, and a particular myopia concerning Billy."

Hot Docs programmer Sean Farnel had his concerns too. But after he did a bit of "auditing," he said, he was convinced the film was authentic and selected it for his Toronto festival.

"It's a marketing challenge," said Farnel. "Whoever figures out that challenge I think could have a sleeper film on their hands. Everyone I know who sees it tells other people to see it. It's totally a word-of-mouth experience."

As part of the film's promotion, Venditti established a page for Billy that Billy himself can't access, she said, so as not to overwhelm him. The film's festival screenings have drawn attention to the site, in at least one case from an old friend of Billy's.

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