‘Author: The JT LeRoy Story’: Sundance Review

Author The TJ Le Roy Story Still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
An engagingly presented doc that can’t quite manage to redeem its unusual subject.

Jeff Feuerzeig provides disgraced author Laura Albert with the opportunity to rehabilitate her professional reputation.

Revisiting an infamous literary scandal of the last decade, Jeff Feuerzeig’s documentary reexamines the writing career of Laura Albert, aka “JT LeRoy.” Albert, a sometime musician and former phone-sex operator, impersonated a teenage boy to publish three salacious novels under the pseudonym before media reports exposed her as a middle-aged San Francisco writer and homemaker.

Rather than a conventional inquiry into the circumstances and personalities that contributed to Albert’s deception, Feuerzeig allows her to tell her own story, eschewing most other sources involved in her professional debut. Now that the taint of scandal has largely blown off the controversy of the books’ authorship, it seems uncertain whether a broad audience will take an interest in this somewhat obscure chapter of American literary history. 

Feuerzeig, who examined similar topics associated with outsider artists in his Sundance-awarded 2005 doc The Devil and Daniel Johnston, structures the film using a non-linear chronology. But if the timeline were presented sequentially, salient episodes would include Albert’s repeated institutionalization for emotional issues as a young Brooklyn girl, her parents’ decision to relinquish custody when she was teen, a college stint as a writing student at The New School in New York and her relationship with musician Geoff Knoop in San Francisco when she was in her 20s. At this stage, Albert was again experiencing suicidal thoughts as she had years before and after calling teen-crisis hotline counselor Dr. Terrence Owens, who became JT/Laura’s therapist, she began writing fiction in a young male voice under the pseudonym “Terminator.” These short stories inspired her to write the novel Sarah, which was attributed to a transgender teen boy named JT LeRoy, with the initials an abbreviation for “Jeremiah Terminator.”

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The novel, focusing on an unnamed protagonist’s experiences as the son of a West Virginia truck-stop hooker named Sarah and his own exploitation as an underage gay teen prostitute, became a media sensation, praised by critics, celebrities and social arbiters alike. Perhaps understandably, Albert kept a low profile as her alter-ego became an almost overnight success, but media pressure started to inexorably build for LeRoy to make public appearances. When the excuses that she provided concerning his chronic shyness couldn’t keep fawning journalists at bay any longer, she recruited Knoop’s sister Savannah to impersonate teenage JT.

What began as a desperate attempt to conceal her deception regarding LeRoy soon grew into a compulsive campaign to manipulate the media, as celebrities as varied as Madonna, Courtney Love, Bono, Lou Reed, Winona Ryder and Smashing Pumpkin’s Billy Corgan praised JT’s talent. At one point, Gus Van Sant optioned Sarah (and later asked Albert to collaborate on the script for Elephant) and Asia Argento produced and starred in an adaptation of LeRoy’s second novel, ironically titled The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. As the accretion of rumors and biographical inconsistencies began to erode the authenticity of LeRoy’s identity, a 2005 article in New York magazine, followed in 2006 by a New York Times exposé, revealed Albert as a fraud and both she and LeRoy eventually disappeared from public view and discourse.

Locating the genesis of her deception in a history of abuse, abandonment and mental instability as a child, Albert insists that LeRoy was not a hoax as many critics have claimed, but rather an “avatar” that enabled her to write arresting prose that she wasn’t capable of producing in her own voice. And it turns out that JT wasn’t the only persona that she assumed, which also included a British musician acting as LeRoy’s confidant and an alternate writer known as Emily Frasier.

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Albert, credited on the film as an “actor,” provided Feuerzeig with access to her extensive collection of personal documents and memorabilia, which include home movies and photos from her youth and married life with Knoop, recordings of her phone messages and conversations with key validators of the LeRoy character and video segments of her in the role of “Speedie,” the Brit LeRoy collaborator she also created. Select and mostly factually objective interviews with some of Albert’s significant mentors round out the expansive range of materials and formats incorporated into the film, predominantly related from Albert’s singular point of view. Feuerzeig and ace editor Michelle M. Witten expertly weave this content together with animated excerpts and filmed reenactments of events from LeRoy’s novels into a persuasively impressive editorial package.

While never really directly addressing her compulsive effort to develop and promote the deliberate impersonation of LeRoy, Albert rejects any clinical psychiatric labels that might help explain her behavior. And although it’s clear that her dauntingly complex personality contributes to her abilities as a superior storyteller, Feuerzeig and Albert now ask us to believe a proven unreliable narrator’s account of her own life, which largely lacks corroboration. As Albert embarks on writing the memoir of her JT LeRoy journey, the film becomes another chapter in her ongoing effort to construct an authentic authorial persona.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)
Production companies: A&E Indie Film, RatPac Documentary Films, Vice
Director-writer: Jeff Feuerzeig
Jeff FeuerzeigDanny Gabai, Jim Czarnecki,  Molly Thompson, Brett Ratner
Executive producers: 
Robert SharenowRobert DeBitettoJames Packer, Marie Therese GuirgisEddy MorettiShane Smith, Henry Rosenthal
of photography: Richard Henkels
Editor: Michelle M. Witten
Music: Walter Werzowa
Sales: WME

Not rated, 110 minutes