The press notes for Asia Argento’s sophomore effort/vanity project, an adaptation of JT LeRoy’s 2001 autobiographical collection of short stories, request that critics withhold discussing plot points “so viewers unfamiliar with the story of 'JT LeRoy’ can discover his story as it is revealed in the film.” Note the scare quotes around JT LeRoy in this disingenuous entreaty; the most revealing plot point, of course, is extrafilmic: LeRoy, the celebrated, bewigged teenage hustler who endured Sadean levels of emotional, physical and sexual abuse, is, we now know, the creation of a woman named Laura Albert.
Not that there isn’t a long, illustrious history of deception in literature; per Oscar Wilde, “Lying, the telling of beautiful, untrue things, is the proper aim of art.” There’s also a rich tradition of children-in-peril narratives: “It’s a hard world for little things,” Lillian Gish’s character says in The Night of the Hunter (1955), one of the best of them. Yet what, exactly, were the beautiful, untrue things that made Argento, along with Winona Ryder (glimpsed briefly in the film), ardent believers in this exhausting chronicle of abjection? Playing a deeply disturbed, manipulative mother, Argento wants to show just how relentlessly brutal it is for a kid—resulting in the audience, too, feeling horribly manipulated. “And with his shame she knows she is recognized,” LeRoy/Albert writes. It is precisely shame that Argento’s film traffics so cynically in. (Opens Fri; Landmark Sunshine. See also “Mother of invention,” page 83.)—Melissa Anderson