Sundance Film Review: ‘Author: The JT Leroy Story’

Literary hoax mastermind Laura Albert tells her side, not always persuasively, in this slickly crafted documentary.

Sundance U.S. Documentary Competition 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

After refusing to cooperate with Marjorie Sturm on the latter’s fascinating “The Cult of JT Leroy” last year, Laura Albert gets a podium for airing her side — and nobody else’s — in Jeff Feuerzeig’s “Author: The JT Leroy Story.” For many, however, the result may feel less an exoneration than a case of “Give ’em enough rope … ” The woman who wrote acclaimed books while posing as HIV-positive ex-prostitute transgender male Leroy does not buy as much retrospective sympathy as she seeks in painting herself as victim to various circumstances beyond her control, ignoring or evading the many ways in which the saga played out as a calculated, opportunistic con. This slickly crafted first-person recap of “JT’s” starry rise and fall may well travel farther than its predecessor; Amazon picked up U.S. rights (its very first documentary acquisition) at Sundance. But it’s ultimately the less interesting film of the two, one in dire need of additional voices that might substantiate Albert’s account, and rendered suspect by their conspicuous absence.

Opening with footage of Winona Ryder gushing that she first met Leroy “many years ago” (itself a questionable claim) before introducing the elusive alleged scribe at the height of “his” celebrity, the pic weaves back and forth through time, chronicling both Leroy’s fame and Albert’s preceding decades in obscurity. A Brooklyn native from a broken home, she’d relocated to San Francisco when in the mid-1990s she called a crisis hotline and the 13-year-old “Terminator” (later called JT Leroy) supposedly just bubbled up out of her psyche. The therapist on call, Dr. Terrence Owens — who continued to advise this client by phone for years — swallowed this persona as real, eventually encouraging him to work out his issues (from a purported horrifying past) in writing.

Whether that tact proved genuinely therapeutic for her or not, Albert wasted little time before soliciting the long-distance patronage of high-profile literary agents and authors, who were genuinely impressed by the work. But they were also undeniably roped in by Leroy’s tragic backstory and the ruse that the stories (though billed as fiction when published) were basically autobiographical. When “Sarah” was published in 1999, the clamor for “shy” Leroy resulted in Albert’s sister-in-law Savannah Knoop posing as the androgynous, heavily wigged/sunglassed figure in live appearances (Albert continued handling the role otherwise). Later, Albert (often posing as Leroy’s British-accented assistant, Speedie) used the newfound fame to secure film-adaptation contracts; tried launching a music career for herself and spouse Geoff Knoop; and become alleged besties with various film and rock stars before a series of exposes brought the whole thing crashing down in 2005.

It’s unsurprising that we don’t hear from any of the celebrities no doubt still stung by having publicly championed a nonexistent figure. But the few people (mostly literary-world pros) we do hear from seem carefully curated and/or edited to avoid any accusatory or aggrieved sentiments, despite the justifiably angry response from most quarters to what Albert now coyly calls Leroy’s “reveal.” Even when a latter-day Savannah is finally heard from, she says so little that her inclusion hardly seems worth it.

That leaves us listening almost exclusively to Albert, who views those who would no longer enable her gambit as “traitors” and talks a very slippery line alternately suggesting that Leroy et al. were a kind of deliberate performance (she constantly cites her early interest in the punk scene as evidence of subversive artistic intent) and that they were a helpless manifestation of inner demons. She flat-out denies having multiple personality disorder, but without any alternative diagnostic insight, we’re left to wonder if she’s simply a very cunning liar — one who still invariably passes the blame rather than accept any glimmer of responsibility. Her tales of formative molestation and fat shaming would be more persuasive if she hadn’t already proven herself willing to invent abuse scenarios to gain attention and sympathy. “Author” omits some of the more ethically appalling tactics she deployed to keep celebrity confidantes spellbound by the thought that they were helping a luridly wronged transgender waif.

Feuerzeig’s prior documentaries “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” and “Half Japanese: The Band That Would Be King” were also portraits of misfits who wanted to be rock stars and willed it into being, if only in their own minds (and those of cult followings considerably smaller than Leroy’s). But he’s not dealing with a practitioner of real naive art here, but a faker (however talented) of the same who appears to have manipulated the content of this film — at least to an extent — as successfully as she manipulated perception of Leroy for so long.

Though the subject’s talking-head defense is the primary element here, “Author” draws on diverse materials, including a surprising wealth of (presumably real) home movies from Albert’s youth, plus clips and behind-the-scenes footage from Asia Argento’s 2004 Leroy-based film, “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things.” Though none is interviewed here, there are plenty of taped phone-call and voicemail excerpts involving such A-list pals as Gus Van Sant, Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan, and Courtney Love (whose snippet does not flatter). Albert is correct about one thing: Whatever literary talent Leroy was praised for shouldn’t have been so quickly forgotten and dismissed by those who’d once championed it. However, that praise was won under false pretenses — and while you can criticize Leroy fans for claiming to love the writing when they really fell in love with the myth it came packaged in, you can’t blame them for feeling ripped off.

“Author” is polished in its own packaging, one minor but nagging misstep being a borderline obtrusive over-use of foley effects to color the spoken elements. The brief animated sequences (illustrating Leroy writings) by Joshua Mulligan and Stefan Nadelman are a plus.

Sundance Film Review: ‘Author: The JT Leroy Story’

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 22, 2016. Running time: <strong>110 MIN.</strong>

  • Production: (Documentary) An A&E Indiefilms and Ratpac Documentary Films presentation, in association with Complex Corp., of a Vice production. (International sales: WME, Los Angeles.) Produced by Jeff Feuerzeig, Danny Gabai, Jim Czarnecki, Molly Thompson, Brett Ratner. Executive producers, Robert Sharenow, Robert DeBitetto, James Packer, Marie Therese Guirgis, Eddy Moretti, Shane Smith, Henry S. Rosenthal.
  • Crew: Directed, written by Jeff Feuerzeig. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Richard Henkels; editor, Michelle M. Witten; animation, Joshua Mulligan, Stefan Nadelman; sound, Robert Reinfried, Daniel S. McCoy, Peter Olsted, Joshua Hilson, Miliken Gardner, Spencer Smith; sound designer, Nicholas Tuttle; re-recording mixer, Lora Hirschberg.
  • With: Laura Albert, Bruce Benderson, Dennis Cooper, Ira Silverberg, Panio Gianopoulos, Savannah Knoop.