Review: Billy the Kid

The transcendent empathy of Billy the Kid leaves almost every other documentary on the block behind.

Billy the Kid
Photo: Elephant Eye Films

Jennifer Venditti’s charming documentary portrait of Billy, a 15-year-old teenager with behavioral problems from small-town Maine, serves as a surprising companion piece to A Child Is Waiting. John Cassavetes’s 1963 film, a heartbreaking snapshot of a culture struggling to cope with mental disorder, ends with a rapturous collage of adult faces stunned by the possibilities of what their handicapped children can accomplish with a little love and guidance. Billy suggests Child Is Waiting’s autistic Rueben, only having been given a chance at a normal life by a mother who never succumbed to the shame that grips Gena Rowland’s Sophie throughout Cassavetes’s drama. On the surface, Billy is like any other teenage boy, fond of girls and rock ‘n’ roll, but whose developmental issues allow him to more readily slip into a fantasy world where the rules of engagement are determined by television shows and movies. His almost-holy sense of morality is that of an innocent young child’s but also suggests the influence of a mother, a victim of abuse, who has clearly taught him how to respect people, especially women, and deal with bullies. When this adorable, corny little Galahad says, “Tim Allen—you’re one crazy guy,” completely and unbelievably sincere, but with an almost unconscious sense of comic timing, the world laughs—not at him, but with him. I wonder if the people would act differently toward him in the absence of cameras, but Venditti is less concerned with how the world copes with Billy’s outré behavior than the way Billy copes with the world, and by lengthily peering in at his courtship of a girl with her own developmental issues, Venditti shows that the epic sense of uncertainty, embarrassment, joy, and heartache these children experience is really no different than our own when we swoon for someone. This is how the transcendent empathy of Billy the Kid leaves almost every other documentary on the block behind.

 Director: Jennifer Venditti  Distributor: Elephant Eye Films  Running Time: 85 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2007  Buy: Video

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez is the co-founder of Slant Magazine. His writing has also appeared in The Village Voice and The Los Angeles Times. He’s a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, the Critics Choice Association, and the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association.

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