16-year-old Kimmi Naughton was the daughter of Billy Naughton, a respected magician from the likes of the footage of him in front of an audience, tearing up a USA Today and putting it back together. In June of 2003, he was subjected to the ultimate trick, which has never been known to bring anyone back: Death. Massive heart attack on the showroom floor of The Magic Shop, of which he was the manager.
When this cinema verite documentary shows Kimmi as she is, she’s 18 years old and moves into an apartment with a girl named Shannon, since she’s tired of fighting with her mother, Cathi, tired of the stress of it, tired of just being there and having to face the same talk day after day. This is not a happy pairing, as Cathi also shows, what with her many medications for her heart, for pain, and later for angina and surely some medicine after the unseen surgery she has in order to remove a small tumor from her left breast. Because the rent wasn’t paid on the Brooklyn apartment, Kimmi goes back home and lives with her mother and this is where the interest really begins, after confusing moments in that apartment trying to figure out what’s going on, wondering why this family’s story is important enough to merit a documentary, and why there isn’t entirely enough information about Billy’s work. But since he was a magician, maybe that’s information enough. He and Cathi had the rocky roads in their marriage, as any marriage does, and she regrets the major fights. More time spent with those, less time spent with a man who’s no longer there.
But it becomes even clearer, through Kimmi’s cigarette-smoking, through the booze and later through the times she cuts herself that Billy wasn’t just the rudder of this ship; he was most of the ship. Losing him, both women lost a hell of a lot and at one point, it’s bad enough for Cathi who is still grieving for her husband, and then her beloved dog, Lady Madonna, dies. For some people, medals just aren’t enough.
In watching argument after argument after argument, there’s no two arguments that are really the same, beyond Cathi continually wanting Kimmi to get a job. She’s aimless. She’s on the computer, she hangs out constantly with her friend Meghan, who’s billed as the “other daughter” with how much she’s at the house, and it’s complete inertia with both mother and daughter struggling to do something, though Cathi takes joy in the occasional karaoke night at O’Hara’s bar. Or at least it sounds like a bar.
Kimmi goes through the expected downward spiral, even ending up in the emergency room after cutting her wrist, but it’s compelling how these two live from day to day. They struggle. Oh, how they struggle. The house looks just as drawn as Cathi’s face, tired from battling her daughter. And you know, this is the kind of story that would end up on Maury Povich or Montel Williams as an out-of-control-teens episode with a cheering, jeering audience letting their snap judgments be known, and a boot camp instructor standing by. But because there’s no audience, because Povich or Williams isn’t there, we see more truth than I’m sure 42 minutes on television allows. It’s our own judgments as to whether Cathi and Kimmi are living the right way, if at all. Of course, when the documentary begins, it’s been two years since Billy’s death. But it’s still a hard thing to go through. Filmmaker Chris DeLeo ends all this at the right moment because it’d be impossible to keep following them. But this is them. And this is grief, even years later. And it takes time. And it’s not easy. And the women know that, and DeLeo knows that, and it just shows that getting back to any kind of normal life takes time.
DeLeo doesn’t pry unnecessarily and he has a journalist’s instinct for just standing by and taking it in, though he does it with a camera, obviously. Off-camera, he asks the questions that fill in what isn’t known right away, and it makes “Billy’s Girls” quite a documentary to watch.