It’s widely known that the world runs on BS but if you need proof, see the new documentary “Author: The JT LeRoy Story.” I had never heard of JT LeRoy, but it seems his description of a sordid life as an adolescent drug addict and hustler were all the rage in the 1990s, especially with the music and fashion demimonde. In 2006, a New York Times reporter revealed that JT LeRoy was really a middle-aged San Francisco woman named Laura Albert, and the slight, shy person who appeared in public as JT LeRoy was actually her sister-in-law Savannah Knoop.
Director Jeff Feuerzeig keeps his camera squarely on Albert, inexplicably dressed in a dominatrix outfit, as she tells the amazing and often ridiculous story of her literary career. An unhappy child and teen, she developed the habit of calling suicide hotlines and presenting herself as a boy. That’s how she came to know the psychotherapist Terrence Owens, she says, who recorded conversations with her speaking as JT and encouraged her to write about her experiences. Those conversations appear in the film, along with “JT” speaking to well-known musicians, writers, book editors, film stars, and others. Laura, who at the time was the mother of a toddler and decidedly unglamorous, didn’t want to miss out on the excitement and presented herself as Speedie, JT’s British manager and confidante.
Feuerzeig intersperses animations and news footage with Albert’s talking head, but there is still an awful lot of her. She’s a strange one: seemingly forthright but essentially untrustworthy, she cannot stop talking about her needs and hurts. It gets tedious after awhile, and it would have been refreshing to hear from an objective outside source. As it is, the viewer is left to judge Albert’s assertions without much direction.
Oddly, we hear little about the work itself. People keep saying that they were blown away by LeRoy’s novel “Sarah,” but was it the writing or the story of a truck-stop prostitute? If the public had known that a middle-aged housewife and mother had written the books, would they have created the same sensation? Doubtful. Our prurient interest in the details of a certain kind of squalor explains the success of the con. Pseudonyms have been around for a long time, but this feels more like an impersonation. Albert was sued for fraud eventually for signing a contract as JT LeRoy, but it’s hard to blame her for the public’s morbid voyeurism.
Heroic War Story
A historical drama about the French Exodus of 1940, “Come What May” tells the touching story of a German refugee’s desperate search for his young son among the thousands of French citizens who left their homes to escape the advancing German army. Christian Carion’s film is based on his family’s experience and presents the residents of a farming village in the north of France with deep affection. It has a deliberately old-fashioned tone, which evokes earlier films about war and heroism and sacrifice.
The town mayor (Olivier Gourmet) believes they can find safety several kilometers away and convinces most of the village to go. He’s aided by his strong-willed wife Mado (Mathilde Seigner) who runs the local pub and by the town’s young teacher Suzanne (Alice Isaaz). Suzanne becomes the protector of Max (Joshio Marlon), a boy who ended up in her schoolroom after his father was arrested. Max leaves messages on the blackboards of every school they pass in the hope that his father Hans will find him. It’s hard not to choke up at that.
The beautifully filmed scenes of the convoy as it snakes along the narrow French roads, wagons piled high with furniture and clothes, livestock wearily trudging behind, will remind viewers of the grittier pictures of contemporary migrants fleeing war in the Middle East and Africa. There is nothing specific in the film that relates to the current migrant crisis, but it is impossible to avoid the comparison.
“Come What May” benefits from a powerful score by Ennio Morricone, the renowned film composer, and from fine performances, including that of Matthew Rhys as a Scottish soldier trapped behind enemy lines.
A Polish-Israeli Ghost Story
A reworking of the legend of the dybbuk, the surprising Polish/Israeli production “Demon” also touches on World War II, although obliquely. A young English architect nicknamed Python (Itay Tiran) arrives in a Polish village to marry his fiancee Zaneta (Agnieszka Żulewska) and take possession of her family’s country house. Zaneta’s grandfather gave the couple the house and grounds as a gift, and though the place is a broken-down wreck, Python has grand designs for it.
Strange things happen almost immediately. On the boat across the lake to the house, Python sees a woman shrieking in the water. Once he begins to dig near an old tree, he discovers a pile of human bones. He falls into a sinkhole and somehow gets out of it. The place feels haunted, but Python’s visions are explained away as excitement or too much to drink. And there is indeed a lot of drinking. It’s a wedding, after all, and it’s Poland.
As the party goes on and on, things get weirder. An old Jewish professor stands up to give a melancholy toast and that’s the first hint of what’s going on. While dancing wildly, Python collapses on the floor and is taken over by a spirit with a young woman’s voice. This young woman speaks Yiddish and begs to be released and returned to her family. The priest is called, as is the local doctor. In a funny turnaround, the priest is more devoted to reason than the doctor, and he refuses to have anything to do with an exorcism. Meanwhile, the bride’s parents race around trying to keep their guests from thinking anything is amiss.
“Our whole country is built on corpses,” one of the guests says, and that observation lifts “Demon” out of the horror category. There have been a few excellent Polish films in the last few years that attempt to look frankly at the country’s role in the Holocaust. Filmmaker Marcin Wrona killed himself right after “Demon” was shown at the Toronto Film Festival, which may have nothing to do with the subject of the film, but a mood of sadness and regret, of hidden secrets, permeates the movie. The dead in “Demon” won’t stay quietly underground; they rise up and swirl about, the uninvited guests at the wedding.
Fictional Report on Arab Spring
Leyla Bouzid’s debut feature, “As I Open My Eyes,” is set in Tunis on the verge of the uprising that would lead to the Arab Spring. Wild-haired teenager Farah (Baya Medhaffar) sings in a local band and is in love with the band’s songwriting leader. They perform in clubs where their young audiences are enthusiastic about their quasi-revolutionary lyrics, but the police are always watching, as is Farah’s protective mother. She knows that Tunisia is a place where you can push only so far, even if you are middle-class and well connected.
Bouzid tries to create the sense that something new is coming, but the film’s pace is too slow and a fair amount of prior knowledge about the Arab Spring and Arab culture is required to make sense of things. It helps if you like contemporary Arab music a lot too, because there is an awful lot of it. Bouzid gets good performances from her actors and she handles the camera well. Her storytelling skills will surely develop. The film is a selection of the Toronto and Tribeca Film Festivals.
New Films in Teaneck
If you’re curious about where new filmmakers exhibit their work, the Northeast Film Festival is taking place at the Teaneck Cinemas this weekend. There are a lot of shorts and a few features to see. Always fun to encourage new filmmakers.