Meet Billy, a 15-year-old sophomore from a small town in Maine. In many ways, he's an average teenager. He likes girls, heavy metal and the martial arts, and aspires to be a DJ and actor when he gets older. He'd like to be a superhero, too. He's skilled in both air and electric guitar, and loves to sing Kiss songs while practicing rock-star moves.
But beneath the typical teenage surface, Billy is more unique than the average 15-year-old. In one moment, he'll quote Robert Frost, and in the next, he'll muse about the value of life. Unusually wise for his age, Billy is also honest and forthcoming.
"I'm not black; I'm not white, not foreign ... just different in the mind--different brains, that's all," he says.
Billy has behavioral issues that cause him to eschew the usual conversational boundaries. His uniqueness drew director Jennifer Venditti into his world.
Venditti met Billy while searching for film extras in a high school cafeteria in Maine. The year was 2005, but the social dynamics she witnessed could cross time and geographical boundaries.
Students were gathered in the usual cliques, and Venditti studied each one and wondered if anyone ever sat with other people. She filmed a group of bullies who told her they once invited a different kid to their table. The unsuspecting boy fell victim to the bullies' ridicule. When Venditti asked who the boy was, they pointed to a kid sitting alone across the room. It was Billy.
Venditti introduced herself to Billy and was intrigued by his candor. She cast him in the film she was scouting for, and later returned to feature him in a new documentary. Venditti spent eight days with Billy, and the result is Billy the Kid, a film that has won numerous awards, including Best Documentary at the 2007 SXSW and Los Angeles film festivals in 2007, and the Audience Award at the Melbourne Film Festival.
Venditti makes her directorial debut with Billy the Kid and has been named one of Filmmaker Magazine's "Top 25 New Faces in Film." She started her own casting agency in 1998 and has street-scouted nonactors for films and advertising. Venditti has an eye for finding special qualities in everyday people.
In Billy the Kid, Venditti shows Billy at school, at home and on the town, living life the way he knows how. He goes to classes, studies martial arts, practices his guitar and spends time at home. Billy and his mother share some touching scenes, and the love they have for each other is evident.
He's unafraid to venture into vulnerable situations, whether it be eating alone in the cafeteria or talking to his young love--a shy, 16-year-old waitress at a local diner. Within minutes of watching the film, you're mesmerized by this teenager who seems like the underdog player in a game whose odds are against him. You just want him to win.
Venditti describes Billy as an independent spirit.
"He is someone who believes in himself and is not willing to conform to what others think that he should be. ... Billy has incredible insight. He gives people the benefit of the doubt and sees the good in people. ... He was a dream subject."
The most difficult part of Venditti's project was the editing process.
"I wanted to figure out who Billy was. I talked to his peers in the community. Those people were not able to give me insight as to who Billy was. They just gave names and possible diagnoses."
In the end, Venditti edited out the other voices: She wanted to show Billy through his own eyes.
Billy's diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder that affects a person's ability to socialize and communicate effectively with others, was not included in the film. He was diagnosed with Asperger's after the film's completion.
"A diagnosis is only one aspect of someone. It is not how we should define someone. People are diagnosed at a rapid level and are limited to that label. That is not who they are," says Venditti.
Diagnosis aside, Venditti hopes that after watching the film, viewers will reflect on how we treat people different from ourselves and see that we have more in common than not. She advocates putting labels aside and looking at the real person.
These days, Billy is a senior in high school and hopes to attend a local community college after graduation. Venditti says Billy is proud of the film and hopes it helps other kids. With awards and positive buzz about the film and its subject, it looks like Billy may be a sort of superhero after all. Billy the Kid opens on Friday, Jan. 25, with shows at 12:15, 5:15 and 10 p.m., at the Loft Cinema, 3233 E. Speedway Blvd. For additional film times, call 795-7777 or visit the Loft Web site. For more information about the film, visit the documentary's Web site.