When Jennifer Venditti was casting Carter Smith’s Sundance award-winning Bugcrush, a gay-themed horror short about small town teens, she scouted a high school in rural Maine for weeks, sitting in the cafeteria and observing students, startled by the enduring strength of the social cliques. One time she sat with a group of bullies, and they told her about how they once invited a kid over to their lunch table simply in order to make fun of him and torture him. She asked which kid it was, and they pointed to a short, skinny kid with a small ponytail, sitting all by himself at the fringes of the lunchroom. That kid was Billy Price. When Jennifer started to spend time with Billy, all the other kids pestered her: Why are you talking to him?
“When I cast Billy in Bugcrush,” Jennifer said at one of her SXSW screenings, “it was partly because of what an amazing kid he was, and partly as a Fuck You to all those other kids.”
Billy the Kid, a feature-length documentary about this astonishing 15-year-old, is the quietest, sweetest, most heartbreaking Fuck You I’ve ever seen. The film begins by spending time with Billy alone. He self-consciously tries to explain himself, the contradictions he knows he has: his love of heavy metal and his affection for his pet cat, his violent streaks and his sensitivity. While playing a shooting game at an arcade, Billy remarks, “I don’t shoot the girls, because I think it’s wrong to hurt women, real or fake.” The opening section is filled with wonderful revelations, and throughout the film watching Billy’s relationship with his mother provides a touching example of the way a parent should deal with a brilliant but troubled child – she’s patient, she listens, she learns, she supports letting him make his own mistakes. But for me the film really takes off when Billy spies a girl his age who works at the local diner. Heather has an eye condition that makes her eyes flicker from side to side, and she is nearly blind. Her younger brothers tell Billy that she gets teased a lot, and where many kids who are bullied might see someone weaker than them that they could turn their aggression on, Billy’s heart goes out to her immediately.
Their courtship and romance play out like the finest fiction, extended scenes that are perfectly paced and shot with a delicacy and tenderness that is a joy to watch. Describing it would be largely pointless, as so much is loaded into every blurted aside, every expectant look, every pause. Suffice it to say that Billy the Kid is very deserving of the Documentary Feature award at SXSW, and much more. This portrait of a young outcast and his struggle to shed “a lifetime of loneliness” had my palms sweating, my heart racing and my eyes tearing up, as though I was the one with the live-or-die teenage crush all over again.