In the decade since she was outed as the mastermind behind the onetime literary phenomenon JT LeRoy, the San Francisco-based writer Laura Albert has been called many things: fraud, disgrace, con artist, pathological liar (her own words, that last one). It’s telling that in his rich and thorny new consideration of the LeRoy saga, director Jeff Feuerzeig has chosen to lead with the less damning designation of “author.”
The title refers less to Albert’s much-disputed writing talents than to her creation of her own rise and fall — born of a compulsion to warp her life, her art, her traumatic past and personal recovery into the most duplicitous and all-consuming kind of fiction.
That makes it hard to approach “Author: The JT LeRoy Story” without wondering whether the film is meant to be an apology for Albert’s charade, a defense of it, or even an extension of it. The strength of Feuerzeig’s movie is that it doesn’t pretend to know the answer. Feuerzeig waives the filmmaker’s right to judge or even criticize. His approach is predicated on the notion that Albert’s voice, full of revealing digressions and contradictory perspectives, contains the multitudes that we seek.
Of the many versions of Laura Albert introduced in the course of “Author,” the most sympathetic is the one we glimpse in old photographs and home movies from her early life in Brooklyn, presented alongside a familiar-sounding chronicle of parental negligence and various mental-health and body-image issues.
It was during one of Albert’s many calls to a suicide hotline, always under a fictional guise, that the imaginary 15-year-old who would come to be known as Jeremiah “Terminator” LeRoy emerged. Amazingly, he stuck, and with a tenacity that Albert claims to have been surprised by.
Once LeRoy was in the world, of course, he had to be kept alive, and “Author” approaches the dizzyingly elaborate proportions of a bedroom farce as Albert recalls how she turned a nonexistent recluse into a living, breathing person — impersonated on the phone by Albert, and in the flesh by her sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop, whose boyish looks and shy demeanor were a perfect fit for this androgynous, psychologically scarred character.
The movie’s true target is the subtler fraudulence at the heart of the celebrity-driven sob-story culture that allowed JT LeRoy to thrive. Why are we such suckers for misery in entertainment, so quick to assume a link between suffering and artistic worth? Does a book identified on its cover as “fiction” gain merit or interest simply because it might be semiautobiographical? Isn’t our tendency to over-praise the young, precocious and damaged just a slippery form of condescension
With: Laura Albert, Bruce Benderson, Dennis Cooper, Ira Silverberg.
Writer-director: Jeff Feuerzeig.
A Magnolia Pictures release. Running time: 110 minutes. Vulgar language, sexual content, violent images, drug use. In Miami-Dade only: O Cinema Wynwood.