THE CULT OF JT LEROY premiered Saturday, April 25. For additional screening times, head here.
One of the most beautiful and emotionally investing documentaries I’ve ever seen is Dear Zachary. I won’t say much more about it because the slow reveal of information is part of the devastating experience of watching Dear Zachary. But the biggest reason why it works because of how close the filmmaker is to his subject. By following a filmmaker tracking the tragic life of his best friend, the film becomes a meditation on grief and the pain of loss is so stark and real.
The Cult of JT Leroy, another film featuring a filmmaker personally invested in the subject interviewing people who are similarly invested, doesn’t transcend its subject matter. Its messaging is confusing and, despite halfhearted attempts to show sympathy for its subject, the filmmaker’s bias is too clear.
In 2004, I read a fawning interview with JT Leroy in hipster hype magazine Nylon and immediately thought, “Something’s not right here.” Leroy, who published three books detailing a childhood of truck stop prostitution and extreme abuse by the age of 20, only appeared in public with giant hats, masks and sunglasses covering his face, and hired celebrities to speak on his behalf at book readings. Leroy transformed from a chronically shy, stuttering, mentally disturbed kid into a media monster, a fame-hungry conglomerate who shunned anyone who got too close. I was immediately suspicious, and the literary world began to wonder what was really going on too. (SPOILER ALERT!) And a year after that fawning interview in Nylon, The New York Times revealed that literary ingenue and former child prostitute Leroy was actually a middle-aged woman named Laura Albert, whom “JT” (JT was portrayed publicly by Savannah Knoop, Albert’s partner’s sister) had gone to live with to avoid a life on the streets.
Director Marjorie Sturm does a fine job of setting us up for the reveal of Leroy’s real identity and building an engaging mystery, but the film ends up fizzling out halfway through to focus on what feels like a personal vendetta against Laura Albert. Sturm, who had begun filming a documentary about JT Leroy in 2002 and was dramatically ordered to cease and desist several years later, turned her original subject into a documentary on this literary hoax. But her feelings about being burned are a little too obvious.
Laura Albert is clearly not a well woman and I would never defend how she preyed on the emotions of good-hearted, well-meaning people in order to further her own career. But sequences that literally compare her to the devil in The Exorcist seem a little harsh and over the top. At times, the film felt like a series of interviews with bitter exes. Only interviewing people who were personally duped by Laura Albert/JT Leroy seems like a poor choice when the true subject of the film–Laura Albert and her desire to invent multiple personalities and personas–is the most fascinating.
It’s true that there’s a deeper narrative here, one that reveals our shallow, celebrity hype machine culture that idolizes youth, suffering, and artistic eccentricities, and how trauma is marketed to the mainstream. Something I wish the film had focused more on, and a point only raised once in the entire film, is if Laura Albert had penned the books under her own name from the start, would she, a 39-year-old mom, have been as revered as a fragile, androgynous, mysterious youth? Instead, The Cult of JT Leroy decides to almost totally ignore these very real and very interesting ideas in order to focus on Laura Albert, the seemingly “crazy bitch.”