The Outsider

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.

Jennifer Venditti

Jennifer Venditti

Photo By Talaya Centeno

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.
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