Dir. Jennifer Venditti. US. 2007. 85mins.
Billy The Kid ventures into a small, contained community to focus on a single life and thereby turns the camera on the world. The Grand Prize winner at SXSW in Austin, where it premiered in March, and an audience favourite at Hot Docs in Toronto, the film is gaining traction for its insight into a little understood disability known as Asperger's Syndrome, part of the autism spectrum. Still, this is no 'freak show' film - Billy wasn't diagnosed until after filming was complete - but a privileged view through the eyes of a genuine iconoclast.
Its theatrical prospects will hinge on continued success on the festival circuit - it plays, for example, in the Los Angeles Film Festival this month. Beautifully shot, it has the feel and texture of a feature rather than a TV effort. Not unlike Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation, the film may be too much for some viewers to embrace.
Still, Asperger's Syndrome, and indeed autism, is a hot topic. HBO recently picked up Autism: The Musical while Mark Haddon's novel The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time, wherein the narrator is autistic, is set for adaptation by Steven Kloves for Harry Potter producer David Heyman and Warner Bros.
Debut film-maker Jennifer Venditti is a casting director for feature films. She was scouting the human fauna of a high school in a rural New England town when she stumbled on 15-year-old Billy eating alone in the cafeteria.
Transfixed by his unique world-view she somehow convinced Billy and his mother to let her small crew follow him throughout his day, from breakfast, school, special education class, lunch, after school at the diner and then home for a few days one spring.
What begins as a fly-on-the-shoulder exploration of life as a teenage boy becomes a sometimes tender, oft-times painful reminder of the subtle power of both kindness and cruelty to shape a person. And it is a portrait of the strength and grace of a mother who stands by her child despite poverty and abuse.
That this is possible is entirely due to the extraordinary kid at the centre of the film. Instantly appealing to audiences for his innocence and utter lack of guile, his plain-speaking and his fondness for air guitar, Billy is unlike anyone we know: we are forced through his eyes to see the world anew.
'I know I'm unique,' he says in voice over as we watch him alone in that same cafeteria. 'I don't let it get to my head Sometimes I think the imaginative world is much better than the real world. But there's one difference, imagination ain't real.'
That's for sure. Some sequences are excruciating: as when Billy attempts to socialise with some boys playing billiards. Despite his entreaties, they blank him. And yet he seems completely unaware that anything is amiss. The social chasm yawns before him as though he were a blindfolded at a cliff edge.
To put it in the stark parlance of his peer group, Billy is weird. Which may be why he takes a shine to Heather, a congenitally cross-eyed girl whose family owns the town diner. A conventional teenage peer but with a glaring physical stigma, she is the opposite of Billy, who is almost faun-like in his physical presence but whose invisible brain chemistry only betrays him when engaged. Their flirtation provides the dramatic backbone to the piece.
Vendetti and editor Michael Levine assemble exquisite montages - sometimes elegiac traveling shots, sometimes pensive static scenes - overlaid with the introspective and deeply felt voice-over of Billy as he recounts the troubles he has known.
His shadowed face, speaking from the dark of the family trailer home, accentuates the power of his inner world. 'Despite my outside appearance,' he say, in utter seriousness. 'I'm actually very sensitive.'
The temptation to dismiss these people as trailer trash is strong, and ultimately humbling. To dismiss Billy as emotionally disturbed is itself a condemnation of a society that cannot embrace otherness. If only more mothers were such strong advocates for their children. If only the world could understand more people like Billy.