Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Buster and Billie (1974)

          For most of its running time, the 1940s-set Buster and Billie feels like a melodramatic teen romance in which a popular high-school boy learns to see beneath the surface of the school slut, forming an unlikely bond that helps both characters mature. But then the picture turns tragic—as in out-of-nowhere, way-over-the-top tragic—and Buster and Billie becomes a weird sort of Southern Gothic horror show. The movie is a bumpy ride in the extreme, though not without its virtues. When the picture begins, Buster (Jan-Michael Vincent) is the school smart-ass in a small Texas town, pulling pranks like driving his truck in front of the schoolbus and temporarily blinding the driver in a cloud of dust. Cocky and handsome, Buster is the ringleader for a gaggle of cool kids and misfits that includes an albino (played by Robert Englund!) who dyes his hair black. Although Buster dates a pretty classmate (Pamela Sue Martin) and laments that she won’t put out, his buddies satiate their sexual cravings by traveling to the boonies for gang-bangs with Billie (Joan Goodfellow), the self-loathing daughter of poor rednecks. Eventually, Buster decides to see what the fuss concerning Billie is all about. His curiosity leads to courtship. And then tragedy arrives, without much logical justification or narrative foreshadowing, throwing the story wildly off-course—the finale has power, but it feels like something from a different movie.
          Amid the strange plot twists and unexpected darkness, there are moments of insight and sensitivity, though both lead performances teeter on the fine line between gentle understatement and utter lifelessness. Goodfellow and Vincent offer tremendous physical commitment to their roles, with Vincent playing a full-frontal scene and Goodfellow enduring humiliating vignettes in which her character is sexually abused. Their emotional commitment, however, is a bit more difficult to appraise. Part of the blame must surely fall on journeyman director Daniel Petrie, who can’t sustain a consistent tone in this movie; it’s therefore unsurprising neither Goodfellow nor Vincent can form coherent characterizations. Still, for all its flaws, Buster and Billie is strangely watchable, the tension between its unfulfilled promise and its weird narrative zigzagging creating a queasy sort of cinematic vitality.

Buster and Billie: FUNKY

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