Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Dec 29, 2007 4:44 pm 
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About a boy

One of the things that make documentaries continually interesting even when they don't focus on momentous themes (but isn't adolescence pretty momentous?) is that in making them filmmakers discover things they could never have planned or imagined. Though its final form is highly questionable, Andrew Jarecki's Capturing the Friedmans is a prime example. Jarecki went out to do a story about a party clown and discovered a scandal of sex perversion that wrecked a family. Jennifer Venditti, who had a background as a scout for unusual fashion models, was looking for cast for Carter Smith's short film Bugrush (a Sundance winner in 2006) in a small Maine town, when she discovered Billy, and she made her feature debut about him.

Billy has been diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, though that wasn't known at the time of filming. That explains some things, such as the sophisticated vocabulary, the awkwardness with people, and the eyes that sometimes dodge the camera. It explains why Billy had rages as a small kid, and why a specialist in Boston erroneously told Billy's mom he would have to be institutionalized.

But while Billy may be seen as a geek by classmates, he comes off as sociable, nice, aiming to do good, and in various ways "normal" for a fifteen-year-old. Billy is a touching, funny boy who's astonishingly outspoken and forthcoming about himself and communicative with others he meets and also able to come up at once with the right thing to say in all sorts of situations. In fact that's what's abnormal, if in a good way: a kid isn't usually this articulate. He has completely open conversations with his mother, who treats him as her "best friend," but also knows when to be "the parent." He ingratiates himself quickly--too quickly, it turns out--with Heather, a sixteen-year-old girl who works at a soda fountain, and with her grandmother and brother and stepfather. He quickly falls in love with her, and this is the most important thing in his life, though he insists it's not an "obsession."

Billy is also in love with Heavy Metal, plays an electric guitar along with films of AC/DC and Kiss, plays video kill games (but won't shoot women, "even fake women"--he dreams of rescuing "a damsel in distress"), likes horror movies, and has a purple belt in karate. He likes to work out and also to dress up in a tuxedo and imagine himself as James Bond. He grew up thinking the world is evil inside his imagination, but later decides it's evil on the outside just as much. He sees himself as a mass of seething emotion inside his mind. Is this unusual or dangerous for a teenage boy? Hardly. His school librarians get worried when he takes out a couple of books on serial killers at one time. Is that dangerous? His mother says he's just interested in exploring things.

The reality is that Billy's father was a drug abuser and alcoholic who beat his mother. Billy went after him with a steak knife once when he did that. Then his father committed a felony and disappeared. His stepfather doesn't appear in this film, and is going to Florida by himself to seek work, because he doesn't like Maine winters.

It's possible to see Billy as desperate. But it's possible to see many fifteen-year-old American boys that way. It's also possible to see him as coping unusually well. He expresses many positive thoughts. He tells his mother he loves her. He loves Heather. He joins the glee club, and later we see him having fun with his fellow singers after a performance.

But Billy knows he is different, "different in the mind." We can see a kind of triumph in his eloquence--he can tell us what's going on with him at any given moment--and yet know this is the painful triumph of the artist, of the hyper-sensitive person. And his apt descriptions are often hilarious and touching. He's absolutely adorable at times, and at others so vulnerable that it hurts. It's adolescent boyhood in the raw, intelligent, but not slick.

This is a marvelous little film. Billy is an authentic character nobody could invent. But like Capturing the Friedmans, though without dealing with scandal or perversion, it raises questions about how it was made. It would seem churlish to say Billy's faking it when he courts Heather and goes for a walk with her and talks about how his heart is aflame with his love. But we know only that he wore a mike and that the film was shot in eight days. This kind of issue goes back at least as far as the PBS series in 1973 about the Loud family. People behave differently when they're being recorded. It's obvious that Billy was born to address a camera and talk about himself. That must be one of the reasons why Venditti chose to make a film about him. This isn't the whole story; it never is. Reality is complex. But one thing is obvious: Billy is a memorable kid, and this documentary is worth watching.

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