In a movie that perpetually keeps us questioning our preconceived notions and conclusions—whatever they may be—only one thing about Author: The JT Leroy Story is certain: It has a hell of a story to tell. Laura Albert’s head-spinning chronicle of the deception she perpetrated on the public as literary wunderkind JT Leroy in the 1990s and 2000s is so inherently compelling that the film would probably still have had an impact if director Jeff Feuerzeig had done nothing more than just turned on a camera and let Albert do all the talking. This is something she had yet to do publicly beforehand, at least to this degree of detail: How could Albert possibly explain away the many alter egos she created in the midst of such an elaborate ruse without coming across as a head case?
Feuerzeig’s film, however, aims to be more than just a standard talking-heads doc. As was the case for singer/songwriter Daniel Johnston in his last feature The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005), Feuerzeig tries to get inside his subject’s head through cinematic means. Some of his attempts at inhabiting Albert’s headspace are rather annoyingly literal-minded: black-and-white clips of Tarzan when Albert makes a comparison to the famous character; images of fax machines and telephones when Albert indicates that a story has been faxed and a phone call has been made; handwritten text that unnecessarily writes out on-screen certain passages from Albert’s stories which Albert herself also reads aloud.
Other such bits of technique, though, have a certain expressive logic to them. Perhaps most noteworthy are the animated sequences, courtesy of Joshua Mulligan and Stefan Nadelman, that bring portions of Albert’s stories to life. Often using black line drawings on a ruled-notebook-paper backdrop, the animation infuses the passages with a fanciful quality wholly appropriate to what are essentially fictional creations—albeit fictions that, Albert is quick to make clear throughout the film, are based on her own painful life experiences.
Though he does include interviews with others who were either swept up in the JT Leroy phenomenon or knew about Albert’s various personas, Feuerzeig basically lets Albert have the whole show in Author, refusing to keep much of a distance from her. That relative lack of detachment offers the film’s main challenge for viewers: Is the director, however unintentionally, merely playing a part in Albert’s image-rehabilitation campaign by adopting such a deeply involved aesthetic stance? There aren’t many voices in the film that directly challenge Albert’s testimony, so hers is the only perspective one has to work with here.
In the end, one’s response to Feuerzeig’s film will almost entirely depend on one’s response to Albert. Can one be sympathetic to her stated reason that the creation of JT Leroy was a kind of personal therapy for her, helping her get over her history of sexual abuse, parental neglect and low self-esteem? Is her view that “a metaphor is different from a fucking hoax” enough to offset the massive scale of her duplicity? That books like Sarah and The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things were never technically categorized as nonfiction enough to dismiss the visible pain the revelations of JT Leroy being a fabrication caused for many people? Though Feuerzeig’s technique is clearly meant to inhabit some of Albert’s perspective, he still manages to leave viewers enough mental room to allow us to make our own judgments. It’s this lack of a clear stance that makes Author: The JT Leroy Story such an unsettling experience—the kind of film you’ll still be thinking and arguing with yourself about long after you leave the theater, as much for the film’s approach to its thorny subject as for the still-controversial subject herself.
Director: Jeff Feuerzeig
Writer: Jeff Feuerzeig
Starring: Laura Albert, Bruce Benderson, Dennis Cooper, Panio Gianopoulos, Ira Silverberg
Release Date: September 9, 2016
Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist and The Village Voice. He is also Deputy Editor of Movie Mezzanine. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art, and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.