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There’s a moment in Jennifer Venditti’s documentary, “Billy the Kid,” when the film’s 15-year-old star, all dangling adolescent arms and legs, paces the pavement outside his school. “I know I’m unique,” he says in a voice-over in the film, which makes its theatrical debut Dec. 5 at New York’s IFC Center. “I just don’t let it go to my head.”
It’s an apt line for a film made by a woman whose career has heretofore been defined by hitting upon specific, even rare, beauty in unlikely people — the finely creased face of a coal miner, the sloped slouch of a Penn State undergrad. As a casting director for magazines (most often W, for which she has collaborated on 14 shoots since 1997), fashion shows, film and advertising campaigns, Venditti has stomped through one-traffic-light towns in West Virginia, crashed an African-American prom in Detroit and corralled a young butcher hauling meat on a downtown New York street (the latter for a Harry Winston shoot, no less). Long before Dove soap ads began celebrating the supple curves of “real women,” Venditti was scouring suburban malls and street fairs, chasing after little girls and old men alike — the so-called ordinary folk whose specific appearances, and indeed flaws, have made them compelling models in campaigns for Levi’s, Benetton and Banana Republic, among others.
It was on one of her treks — to a rural Maine high school, scouting for teenage extras for her close friend Carter Smith’s short film “Bugcrush” in 2005 — that Venditti stumbled across the enigmatic Billy Price. “I had been hanging out in the cafeteria, watching these kids, and I could not believe that everyday, everyone sat in the same place,” Venditti says, sitting in her airy SoHo office with walls papered with Polaroids of famous (Gisele, grinning and flashing a peace sign) and not-so-famous faces. “So I went to a table of hard-core bullies, who told me they had been messing with this kid, and the kid fought back, which scared them,” Venditti continues. “I said, ‘Who’s this kid?’ And they pointed across the room, and there was Billy.”
At turns precocious, insightful and deeply socially alienated, Price, who appears to have a form of Asperger’s syndrome, but whose particular diagnosis is never revealed in the film, immediately gripped Venditti. Long interested in filmmaking, she began to think about documentary work. While thousands of casting interviews had yielded bins of videotape that featured a vast range of people, often with odd, wrenching stories, Venditti remained unable to pull out a singular narrative. That is, until she encountered Price, whose charm and pathos were almost immediately evident. At times sporting a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Truck stops of America,” Price proved to be a more-than-captivating subject, and embarked on a short-lived romance with a local waitress, Heather, during the eight days Venditti spent following him over two seasons in 2005.
The brevity of the film’s shoot — five days in January, three days in March — sparked controversy last spring when Variety’s John Anderson, in a scathing review following Toronto’s Hot Docs Film Festival, questioned the veracity of Venditti’s technique, calling the film a “masquerade as vérité filmmaking,” in which “almost every scene is a setup, with sequences…shot from multiple angles.” The review ignited an already simmering debate as to what lengths, if any, documentarians can go to contrive their subjects’ lives for the sake of story arc. “Freak-show docs, of which there are plenty,” Anderson wrote, “are popular because they make audiences happy they’re not the subject of the film.”
Venditti’s film editor, Michael Levine, responded in a letter to the editor, confirming that his perusal of dozens of hours of videotape proved Venditti did not stage any scenes. (She has acknowledged that, for one scene, she requested a group of men applaud for the cameras, after she learned that they had done so spontaneously while she and her sound person were out of earshot.) However, it was Anderson’s insinuation that Venditti’s portrayal of Price was exploitative, rather than enlightening or instructive, that clearly struck a chord with her.
“This film is my interpretation of the time I spent with Billy, but I’ve been very clear about the fact that it’s all real,” says Venditti. “There are excruciating moments in the movie, and I think the people who attack it are uncomfortable with what they’re seeing.”
Regardless, the film won the jury prize for best documentary at the Los Angeles, Edinburgh and South by Southwest film festivals earlier this year.
Smith, whose 1997 W shoot “Up, Up, and Away” provided Venditti with her first casting gig, and whose upcoming film, Dreamworks’ “The Ruins,” marks yet another such casting collaboration, agrees.
“While Billy loves the outsider title, that can be a pretty lonely place,” he says. “I think Jen’s hope is to open people’s eyes to that loneliness while also showing the value to being that person. It’s not all about being on the starting varsity football team.”