Written by: Pat King, Special to CC2K
Jennifer Venditti’s excellent documentary takes a close look at the different algorithms that run our brains.
If Jennifer Venditti never makes another film, her 2007 documentary Billy the Kid will work just fine. The movie is a much needed revelation for “rugged individual” America, holding a mirror to our true conformity. Because if you really let your freak flag fly, I mean, just let yourself go, most likely you’ll find yourself ridiculed and avoided, even if you don’t mean any harm.
Fifteen year old Billy is always in motion, always going somewhere. His varied interests include heavy metal music, karate, bike riding and horror movies. But above all, he’s interested in girls. He’s socially awkward, has a skinny body and wears a ponytail/rattail combo inspired by Stephen Segal. He’s not exactly the most eligible bachelor at his small-town Maine high school. But Jennifer Venditti arrives just in time to film Billy meeting and getting to know Heather, his first love.
Heather works at the local mom-n-pop diner. Billy’s noticed her before and learns from her ten year old brother that she’s legally blind and even though she gets made fun of a lot, everyone in her class had the nerve to sign her get well card after she recently injured her wrist. Billy lights up when he hears this. There’s an immediate connection.
And so the next day he goes back to the diner and sees Heather sitting at the counter, apparently on break. Billy asks her how she hurt her wrist and she replies that she’s not exactly sure. Billy wishes her well and then heads straight to the bathroom. Behind the closed doors, but with his microphone still on, Billy admonishes himself. “Death, death,” he says in a way that might sound shocking if you’ve never been an awkward teenager trying to start a meaningful conversation with a crush. But Billy gathers himself and regains his composure and heads back into the diner. He makes his way toward the exit before returning to Heather at the last minute. He sits near her at the counter, a single stool separating them. He asks her a lot of questions and tells her a lot about himself, trying his best not to let the conversation die. It’s such a sweet scene, watching these two kids who, nobody’s paid much attention to at best and openly ridiculed at worst, getting to know each other. Billy really doesn’t have any sort of social filter that limits his conversations and he tells Heather everything that comes to mind. He’s really into Kiss and AC/DC. He wants to be a rock star, an actor and a DJ. His biological father abused his mother and then split. All this within a first conversation. At one point Billy mentions that when he was much younger, he had a vision of his deceased grandfather. Billy saw him standing near his bed. Billy thought he might be going mad. But then he quickly adds that he doesn’t believe in madness.
And here we reach what is, for me, the primary theme of the film. I mean, we know from the beginning that something’s up with Billy, that some brain wires are crossed somewhere. At another scene in the diner, Billy meet’s Heather’s grandmother and mentions that he, too, has a “condition.” But just when it seems as though he’s going to say “autism” or something related, I had to laugh when he said, “bronchitis.” And in an interview segment, Billy’s mother tells us how he had tantrums as a baby, how he gave her black eyes, how a doctor mentioned institutionalization. But even here, there’s no specific name given to what’s wrong with Billy, though we can certainly infer. But Venditti would have made a completely different movie if that unspoken thing was spoken. It would become a movie about biology, a medical drama. And Billy works just fine as his own entity. Besides, we’re all slaves to our biology, our genetic code. There’s so much of who we are that’s beyond our control. Put another way, Billy’s just operating with a slightly modified brain algorithm.
At least that’s what I think, and you’d have a damn difficult time convincing me otherwise. Even so, I don’t know if there’s something that we can objectively label “madness.” I tend to think there is and it has something to do with the extent that someone’s psyche is divorced from reality. But even here I have to be careful. Because the curtains to reality usually open to more unreality, especially for us media-saturated Americans. For a country as involved in movies, TV, music and sports as we are, we show a remarkably low tolerance for people who indulge in fantasy that isn’t culturally approved. Make no mistake, Billy lives entirely in a world of his own creation and fashions reality to his own liking. When we see him alone in his room, playing guitar to a hair metal tune playing on his TV, he totally loses himself in his performance. In fact, Billy almost ceases to be himself at all, he so totally inhabits his role. We see that he is in a room, but we can almost see the room disappear as he becomes the star of his own imaginary concert. And when Billy is in his karate uniform or riding his bike around town, he’s a superhero, looking for a damsel to rescue. Billy just doesn’t know the rules of the game. Or, even better, there never were any rules and Billy intuitively knows this.
If only we were all so brave.