North Bend Film Festival Review: BILLY (2018)

BILLY is the feature film debut from writer/director Theo Maassen which centers around a successful ventriloquist who decides to part with the dummy that made him famous in order to forge his own path. The film stars Bruno Vanden Broecke (Loft), Daniël Brongers (Spider in the Web), Christine de Boer (De meisjes van Thijs), and Ellen Parren (Love Is All). The film saw its North American Premiere last month at the inaugural North Bend Film Festival.

Gerard de Groot (Bruno Vanden Broecke) is a ventriloquist who has found fame with his acts that feature Billy the Puppet. Billy goes everywhere with Gerard and is a constant companion regardless of the self deprecating comments that Billy makes to him. Billy exudes a cool confidence and off-color humor whereas Gerard is more reserved and self conscious of his existence outside of Billy. However, when they both fall in love with different women, Gerard makes the decision to separate himself from his puppet friend, which proves to be more difficult than he first thought. What results is a black comedy that showcases both the cruelty and acceptance that people can possess.

I don’t like puppets of any kind – doesn’t matter if its a cute creature puppet or a ventriloquist doll. Something about them just unsettles me and makes me anxious to leave whatever room they are residing in. Knowing that, I figured that BILLY was going to be another case where a movie tried to capitalize on people’s fears towards puppets, but to my surprise, that wasn’t what this movie was about. At its core, BILLY is a heartwarming film that shows how difficult it is to accept oneself for who they are. Billy is a puppet, it’s not a monster or a possessed doll, it is a puppet that is controlled by Gerard and through that he is able to beat himself up and pinpoint his flaws in a way that will make people laugh and want to be closer to him. The problem is, no one wants to be closer to Gerard… Gerard is only a shadow behind the success of Billy, and that’s who everyone wants to be around.

I’ll be honest, going into this film I wasn’t expecting to like it and I know that’s a flaw on my part to have judged a film based off of very little information. However, in the end, that wasn’t the case as I truly loved every minute of this weird and bizarre film. I found myself relating a lot to Gerard, of feeling like I don’t belong and having my inner voice constantly telling me I’m not good enough. However, unlike Gerard, I can’t grab my inner voice and physically lock it away inside a safe, though I wish I could. When Gerard does this with Billy, he finds a freedom that he hasn’t had in quite some time, but there is always that nagging feeling that he’s missing a part of himself, that he isn’t quite whole. I may be analyzing this movie way to much but that was a huge takeaway theme for me, especially when confronted with the question of how do you find a common middle ground so that the two parts of you can be whole?

I think what makes this film work so well is the acting from all our main players, but most notably Bruno Vanden Broeke. I was mesmerized by his performance as he went back and forth between Gerard and Billy. He was a character that you could care for, that you wanted to see win, as you watched him get beat down over and over again from those who think they know what is best for him. Acting alongside of him were Christine de Boer, who played Merel, and Ellen Parren, who played Belinda, the two main love interests for both Gerard and Billy. Merel is much more grounded in reality whereas Belinda is more of a wild woman with a puppet kink. Both Christine de Boer and Ellen Parren were the perfect opposites in terms of personalities and what they both wanted from Gerard/Billy. However, the real comedian of the film, at least for me, was Ruben van der Meer who plays Jeremy, Gerard’s manager, who hit every note he was given without skipping a beat.

Overall, BILLY is a gem of a find and I’m so grateful I had the chance to catch the North American premiere while attending North Bend Film Festival. It’s definitely an eclectic film that may not be enjoyed by all, but I would highly suggest giving it a chance if it comes your way. For Theo Maasseen’s feature film debut, he knocked it out of the park and I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

Shannon McGrew
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