At the beginning of the month, I reviewedBilly the Kid, Jennifer Venditti's debut documentary about a 15-year-old boy in Maine. It's a very revealing and endearing story; however, it's also one that is awkward and uncomfortable, which can open itself to claims of exploitation. Billy isn't the bubblegum chewing Disney kid, but a young guy with his share of problems. There is domestic violence from his biological father, as well as his own struggles with lashing out. But he's also a pretty smart kid with a really big heart. Granted, his heart makes him yearn to connect with people and often say inappropriate things, but its with genuine innocence.

Well, Variety's John Anderson doesn't agree. Taking the exploitation route, he describes Billy has someone who has escaped institutionalization but doesn't function well or comfortably, and says that Venditti "shows a willful blindness to the agony of adolescence in general and a particular myopia concerning Billy." Beyond his displeasure with the subject, Anderson says that the documentary was masquerading as verite filmmaking: "Almost every scene is a set-up... That the film feels scripted should shock no one." Yesterday, Variety posted a letter to the editor in defense of the film, from the doc's editor, Michael Levine. Of course, he refutes the claims of staged material and says that: "Endless discussion and deliberation was given to make sure her genuine admiration and love for Billy was the lasting reflection from the film."

To me, it was apparent during the Hot Docs Q & A that Venditti thought Billy rocked. She saw his quirks as fresh, where Anderson seems to be reminded of the Virginia Tech tragedy when watching Billy. But this whole thing also brings up a larger question -- when does a film become exploitation, and how much should or can we allow before shutting off? Obviously, we can show more in a fictional context, although when filmmakers push the lines (Dakota Fanning), people will protest. I loved this documentary because although it was painfully honest with Billy's struggles, there was also a lot of heart in it, and I would say that's valuable in a world where we'll jump to black and white to explain something. But I also can't imagine what it would be like, as Billy, to hop on the Internet and see the criticisms and judgments on his actions. It's a slippery slope... What do you think?
categories Movies, Cinematical