This past weekend, PJ and I finally got a chance to watch Billy Was a Deaf Kid, the first feature film by Burke and Rhett Lewis. Back in June, Rhett Lewis left a comment on my blog, asking if I’d like to see his movie. I wrote him back and said yes, so he sent me a screener. I’ve been meaning to watch it for the past month but hadn’t gotten a chance until Saturday.

Here’s the trailer:

Rhett Lewis stars in the picture as Archie, a guy in his late twenties who spends a day hanging out with his girlfriend, Sophie, played by Candyce Foster, and his brother, Billy, played by Zachary Christian. Billy is deaf, but Archie insists that he can hear with the aid of a toy radio.

I have to admit that one of the reasons I took a few weeks to watch the movie is that this is the first time I’ve reviewed a film knowing that the artists behind it would likely read the review. It’s easier to pretend that no one reads my blog and certainly that no one who isn’t already one of my friends reads it. Add to that the fact that the writer-director-star suggested I watch it, and I felt very self-conscious about watching and reviewing it.

I was especially worried that I would hate the film. Then what would I do? To date, I’ve mostly tried not to review movies that I really disliked, though a few have snuck onto the blog. After Lewis sent me a copy, I worried that not reviewing it would be the same as writing that I didn’t like it. I didn’t want to disappoint him after he had gone to all of the trouble of sending me a copy.

Fortunately, all of my worries were misplaced: I loved this movie and thought that it was one of the best movies I’ve seen in quite a while. It is charming, subtle, and beautiful to watch. It’s an excellent film.

Technically speaking, I don’t think I can call Billy Was a Deaf Kid a mumblecore movie, a genre I tend to love, but regardless of its genre it shares many of the characteristics that I love about the best of those films. The film is relatively low budget, focuses on interpersonal relationships among three twenty-somethings, and certainly achieves the feel of improvisation — the movie seems like a documentary of these three people’s day rather than a traditional “film.”

The movie follows Archie and Sophie as they spend time with Billy. The threesome play with the toy radio, ride a couch down the street and through a car wash, and generally hang out. That’s pretty much the plot of the movie. Nothing really happens. They just chat and do things together.

Also like mumblecore movies, this movie isn’t really about plot. It’s more of a character study. What we get is an hour-and-a-half analysis of Archie’s character. We’re introduced to him in a scene in which he and Sophie take turns slapping and spitting on one another. It’s a bizarrely brilliant scene. First off, what other movie would include, much less start with, a scene like this? Lewis is physically much larger than Foster, but somehow the scene never becomes threatening or directly about violence. It’s increasingly uncomfortable as Burke and Rhett Lewis allow the scene to go on longer than most movies would allow, and the characters revel in breaking these taboos, at least until they too begin to feel that it’s going on too long and start to take the slaps and spitting personally.

Part of what I like about this scene is that it establishes Archie as a “good guy” despite the fact that he’s spitting on his girlfriend. I come back to the “bizarrely brilliant” label: Archie is both the nice guy who would never deliberately hurt or demean his girlfriend and the jerk who uses this opportunity to do both. Part of his likeability is that he encourages Sophie to slap him, which further established his “good guy” persona — he gets as good as he gives, but then he gets mad when she actually keeps doing it, just as she gets mad when he keeps spitting on her. (I’d talk about how hot I think Rhett Lewis is throughout this movie, but since he might read this I’ll omit that part of the review!)

This scene — as well as the ones that follow it — subtly shows the hostility and immaturity that hovers just beneath the surface of Archie’s relationship with Sophie. It doesn’t take much for their playfulness to turn into an argument. Archie often pushes things too far, and Sophie never seems to know whether he’s “just playing” or whether he means to hurt and demean her. I liked the occasional eruption of what’s just beneath the surface; it gives this film an even more realistic feel.

Overall, I’d say Archie definitely has some problems, which the movie allows us to see. Furthermore, I think it gives us the space to judge him for some of his actions. You have to wonder about a guy who duct tapes a radio to his deaf brother’s head or allows him to go through a car wash without much protection on. But what I liked about the movie is that, despite these problems, Archie is still a likeable guy. Its depiction of him is complex and multi-dimensional. Like most real people, he does good and bad things. He’s both well intentioned and oblivious to others’ needs. He’s kind and a jerk. Some of my opinions about Archie changed over the course of the picture. I liked that it doesn’t give us answers or tell us what to think about him. It lets us judge for ourselves. (Just make sure you don’t stop watching when the credits start to roll.)

Watching this movie is like riding a couch down a hillside — it veers off course and you don’t know where you’ll end up. And I really enjoyed the ride from start to finish. The actors are all great, and the direction is amazingly self-assured — it takes a lot of self-confidence to make a movie that seems to be about nothing more than a day in the life of three rather average people. Despite appearances, it’s about relationships, gender relations, political correctness, and what it means to be a grown-up. It also has a great soundtrack.

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