Jeff Feuerzeig’s Author: The JT Leroy Story is the tale — often laborious and meandering — of JT Leroy, an early-2000s literary sensation and supposed voice of the underground. An HIV-positive West Virginia bumpkin with a prostitute for a mother, Leroy came from nothing and soon found himself mingling with the likes of Lou Reed, Gus Van Sant and Bono. Except Leroy didn’t actually exist. He was the “avatar” (as she put it) of unknown San Francisco writer Laura Albert — at least on the page. In public, Leroy was essentially played by Albert’s sister-in-law Savannah Knoop, who would show up in public as the aggressively shy author, hidden beneath a wig and behind sunglasses. At least until the truth came out.
Author‘s point, however, is to give Albert’s side of the story. According to her, it started off as a means for her to exorcise abuse in her past, but eventually and quickly got out of control. The vast majority of the film involves Albert telling the story of Leroy — from sudden, unexpected concoction to his cult of celebrity and eventual outing as a fictional creation — step-by-step. In this sense, the film is too dedicated to Albert, as Author and its 110-minute runtime feels tedious and aimless, a little too detailed and involved. A lot of this is entertaining, but perhaps less for the reasons Feuerzeig intended. There’s a kind of awe at the gullibility of all the writers who first championed Leroy and the celebrities who later embraced him as a new and important voice, but nothing about Leroy (at least as the film presents him) feels legitimate, from his hokey Southern accent (most of Leroy’s relationships began via the telephone) to his goofy wig.
What’s frustrating about Author is the film never examines the nature of why everyone ended up duped. A lot of this probably has to do with people’s reluctance to talk to Feuerzeig, but it’s telling that the film’s most insightful moment is Knoop’s 45-second interview in which she explains that people wanted to trust that Leroy existed. The rest of the film never quite reaches this level of insight, as most of the runtime is used for Albert to defend herself. This is somewhat troubling since Albert (who’s kept seemingly hours of secretly recorded phone conversations for years and years) has established herself as difficult to trust. Little in the film changes this, though it does create an amount of sympathy.
In most ways, I agree with Albert and understand where things went wrong. I understand her need to use her writing as personal therapy but needed some facade in order to examine her own truths. Actual West Virginia writer Scott McClanahan put it best once, saying, “I never look at a painting and ask, ‘Is this painting fictional or non-fictional?’ It’s just a painting.” So the idea that people should be angry because something purported as true turned out to be false is missing the point. The same goes with Leroy’s existence as a pen name, something that has a long history within literature. But where Albert and Feuerzeig slip up is that these creations never entered the real world and never entered into friendships (and even romantic relationships) with people, gaining their trust or their affection. Author feels incomplete and obviously one-sided, like the piece of something bigger. It’s certainly a fascinating story, but one too close to its subject for truth. Rated R for language throughout, sexual content, some drug material and violent images.
Now playing at Grail Moviehouse