Sean K. Cureton

Archive for August, 2018|Monthly archive page

Author: The JT LeRoy Story: The Cult of Celebrity

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on August 25, 2018 at 9:24 am
Author: The JT LeRoy Story

Amazon Studios

Author: The JT LeRoy Story (2016)
Directed by Jeff Feuerzeig
VOD Rating: Really Liked It

First published in 2000 under the pseudonymn JT LeRoy by author Laura Albert, “Sarah” became a transgressive fiction literary sensation. After holding court with such seminal writers of the sub-genre such as Bruce Benderson and Dennis Cooper, the rising writer of American letters seemed destined for superstardom. Whisked away on the coattails of celebrities impressed with her abilities on the page, Jeremiah “Terminator” LeRoy become the queer it lit boy of a generation, despite himself being another work of fiction conjured up by Albert. Enter documentary filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig, whose impressive pedigree as a New Journalism auteur on such works as The Devil and Daniel Johnston from 2005, makes him the perfect candidate to tell Albert’s tumultuous tale of creative identities. In Author: The JT LeRoy Story, Feuerzeig presents a convoluted story that’s stranger than fiction, as it occurred according to Albert, about a highly contentious and controversial spin on the intersection of celebrity, art, and genius.

Historically speaking, the entire legacy of JT LeRoy seemed destined to unravel. What began as an exercise in personal therapy undertaken over the phone by Albert with Dr. Terrence Owens had become an unprecedented literary sensation. LeRoy was an “avatar” that allowed Albert to express things that she wasn’t ready to own up to as herself, so instead she cast her androgynous sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop, to play the part for her in real life. And despite the legally questionable extent to which Albert operated under the public fiction that LeRoy was a person separate from herself, Feuerzeig manages to make her into an unsung hero throughout his film. Yet the entire film is dependent on Albert’s word over anyone else’s.

Citing several formative moments of emotional and physical abuse from her own childhood, Albert indirectly apologizes to anyone she might have hurt. As a director of her story, Feuerzeig leans back from dictating the nature in which Albert justifies and explains her own actions, however misguided and damaging they may be perceived.  In Author: The JT LeRoy Story, Feuerzeig and Albert appear to believe that the work should stand on its own outside of the controversy surrounding the name JT LeRoy, however complicated the surrounding social and cultural context has become in retrospect. For them, the novel Sarah and the book of short stories The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things are permanent reminders of Albert’s prowess as a writer.

Thanks in no small part to Feuerzeig‘s impassive role as a spectator to Albert’s genius, sanity gives way to subtle madness, tragedy, and a very public humiliation, years after the initial controversy. Like his 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston did for its own titular singer-songwriter misfit of the 1980s, Author: The JT LeRoy Story manages to present its own pop cultural phenomenon according to his/her own terms. How much of the story anyone might believe is entirely up to the individual viewer’s discretion, as Laura Albert makes the case for the defense of JT LeRoy under the auspices of her own assumed genius and madness. Sometimes fact is stranger than fiction, and nothing is more peculiar than the legacy of JT LeRoy ten years later. Regardless of how you feel coming away from Feuerzeig‘s controversial film, you’ll be hard pressed to forget Albert’s impressively articulated story anytime soon.

Author: The JT LeRoy Story is currently available on Amazon Prime, and is My Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week. This review is an abridged version of an article that was originally published by Film Inquiry.

 

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Eighth Grade: Coming of Age Online

In Movie Reviews: 2018 on August 18, 2018 at 7:27 am
Eighth Grade

A24

Eighth Grade
Directed by Bo Burnham
4 out of 4 stars

It’s strange to see a movie as tender as Eighth Grade see wide release. It’s even stranger still to see a YouTube star/standup comedian turned director be the creative talent behind its inception, production, and distribution. Starring Despicable Me franchise star Elsie Fisher as Kayla Day, a young, intense, and turbulently thoughtful middle schooler, Burnham’s first trip behind the camera of a major motion picture is everything that every twee Millennial twenty-something with a penchant for anxious sarcasm has come to expect from the internet celebrity, and then some. After building his career and public image on comedic songwriting and post-modern grandstanding, Burnham has come away from it all with some hard earned truths about the perils of coming of age online. And in Ms. Fisher, Burnham has found his perfect avatar.

Quick to cite his own issues with mental health, Eighth Grade navigates the perennially fraught psychological waters of middle school for girls with remarkable empathy that only Burnham could have delivered. The ways in which the film tracks Kayla’s awkward coming of age as she girds herself for the transition into high school is a terror to watch. Aided by an especially effective musical score that serves to highlight the innermost thoughts and fears through moody electronic soundscapes, a pool party turns into a monster movie and a night spent alone on Instagram turns into a delirious odyssey. But rather than make any moral statements on the ills of social media outright, Eighth Grade tactfully remains uninterested in condemning or celebrating online culture at all. Instead, it seeks to understand the ways in which it shapes us all, especially young people, and how we all choose to engage and cope with its unavoidable integration into our personal and professional lives.

But more than that, Eighth Grade really gets at what it feels like to feel shy, alienated, and alone. At the beginning of the film, the viewer is meant to feel the intense stab of pain that comes from being acknowledged as the quiet one. Substitute quiet for weird, aloof, or dorky and the epithet would amount to the same social impediment of feeling out of place in your skin. The ways in which others are so quick to judge Kayla throughout the film as the quiet one force her deeper and deeper into her own corner. Meanwhile, her doting father (Josh Hamilton) struggles to get his daughter to come out of her shell so that everyone else can see the lovely person that he knows he has raised.

Perhaps the most wonderful thing about Eighth Grade comes in its depiction of Kayla’s output on YouTube. Bookending the beginning and the end of Burnham’s directorial debut are two videos that see his young muse extolling painfully self-reflective words of wisdom about learning how to fit in with your peers and loving yourself despite your insecurities. Yet the pain isn’t a burden. Far from it, the pain that Kayla feels is immediately akin to that of the viewer, who has undoubtedly also struggled over the course of their life to take the same kind of advice to heart and follow it through to the end. But most importantly, that epiphany is reached online.