Sunday, January 20, 2008

Billy the Kid

The high school years, even for the most popular students, are filled with social awkwardness and rarely prepare you for life afterwards. For those students who lack certain undefined skills, look or act differently and find themselves on the outside of the bubble, looking in, this four year period takes on a hellish quality.

Director, Jennifer Venditti’s documentary, Billy the Kidd takes us inside the life of 15-year-old Billy, a high school “outsider,” growing up in a small Maine town. We witness what it’s like for someone like Billy, navigating high school’s many social landmines and diffiicult encounters, trying to keep it all together and intact.

Venditti, who discovered the main character, while conducting casting calls for another film she was working on in Maine, becomes captivated by Billy and decides to devote eight days of filming and following the young man around. The end result is a masterful, human portrait of a teenager, struggling to cope with a myriad of issues and someone we can all draw inspiration from.

What I think are the strongest qualities of the film are the questions it forces us to ask ourselves about the Billys we know, or meet, in our own lives. In a society that operates on mass conformity, what does Billy teach us about those who won’t, or more importantly, can't conform to standard cultural mores?

The film had an additional attraction for me, as it was shot in the town where I grew up and continue to be attracted to, Lisbon Falls. Much of the filming takes place in the town’s small downtown and centers on a local eatery, the former Mario’s Restaurant. It’s a rare person in town who hasn’t had at least one meal, or takeout dinner, from this local landmark.

During the filming of Billy the Kid, the unexpected happens. Billy meets a 16-year-old girl, Heather, who works as a waitress at the eatery, now called, Little Lisa’s. This chance happening builds an extra dimension of first love into an already compelling story and thoroughly pulls at the audience’s heartstrings.

Venditti’s film has been screened at numerous festivals around the world and was voted Best Documentary at the 2007, SXSW Film Festival and won Best Documentary at the Los Angeles Film Festival. The Melbourne Film Festival resulted in the Audience Award and an additional Best Documentary Award came courtesy of the Edinburgh Film Festival.

Currently being screened in major cities around the country, Brunswick was fortunate to be one of the stops. Frontier Cafe/Cinema, at Fort Andross was the venue for two sold out showings on Friday and four packed screenings on Saturday. The film moves on to Washington, DC and Boston, next.

What was great about the Saturday screenings of the film, was Vendetti’s presence and post-film Q & A with the audience. Vendetti spoke warmly and eloquently about the filming, her process and some of the underlying themes of the film, during the supper showing that my wife and I attended.

One particular exchange with the audience was informing and helped put the character of Billy and the film, into context, for me. When Venditti was asked how she came to choose Billy as her character study, she talked about working in the local high school (Mt. Ararat, where Billy attends school) and talking with students in the lunch room. She was struck by the cliquishness of the school and the daily experience during the lunch hour (saying it hadn't seemed to have changed much in 20 years, since she was in school). Asking students if they always ate with the same people, the students said "yeah." The one time someone tried to break down some of the walls, they all told about an event that happened with a kid who "freaked out;" the student's name was Billy.

Venditti said she found Billy, sitting alone. After speaking with him, finding him to be an intelligent, uniquely insightful young man, she couldn't understand why everyone wasn't sitting at his table. After watching the film, I was left with similar sentiments.

Frontier continues its quest to become a cultural hub, combining food, film and art, reclaiming the former mill space and a real destination for something unique and uncommon for our area.

With events like Saturday's and other food related endeavors, it is succeeding.

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