The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things (Asia Argento)
Honesty may be the best policy, but when viewing the brutal reality of The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, and knowing the story to be true, the tears at the heart and tears in the eyes make this film a beautifully, painful watch. I really struggled with this review more than any other because of the conflict between the captivating nature of cinematography and the honest, bare bone presentation by the film’s actors, and how one is left asking, “What the hell?” as the film ends by dropping off a cliff.
The story is of J.T. Leroy (the ‘J’ stands for Jeremiah and the ‘T’ for Terminator, an ironic nickname he acquired while hustling the streets) and his horrible, abusive childhood. He was born in 1980 to a young, teenage rebel of a girl named Sarah (Asia Argento), and up until he was seven, he lived a fairly normal childhood under the protection of his foster parents. To emphasize the utter failure that is our country’s child welfare system, which governs foster homes and the half a million or so children where they reside, J.T is taken from the home where his foster parents wanted to adopt him, and against his will, is thrown back into the life of his then 23-year old alcoholic, drug addict, prostitute of a mother. Good call.
Derived from Leroy’s book of the same name, which was published when he was only 21 (Leroy had already published articles in Nerve, The New York Press, and Spin at the age of 16, along with his first novel in 2000 called “Sarah”), chronicles the years of chaos as his transient parent Sarah took him from truck stop hustling, living with boyfriends/pseudo father figures that raped and beat him, to episodes where Sarah shared drugs with her son and mentally manipulated him into submission. Numerous times Leroy ends up in the hospital, including one of the first scarring incidents that brought him to live with his evangelical grandparents for three years while his mom lived her rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. But Sarah would always come back for what seemed to be the only anchor she had in life, her son.
Asia Argento, who directed the film while playing the psychotic mother role, did an amazing job at molding the scenes and conducting the orchestration of actors, including Jimmy Bennet who does a stunning job as 7 year old Jeremiah; Cole and Dylan Sprouse who are Jeremiah at age 10 (Ross’ son in Friends); Michael Pitt (Hedwig & The Angry Inch), who plays a mentally challenged friend of one of her meth-lab boyfriends Chester, played by Jeremy Sisto (Six Feet Under). Other appearances include Peter Fonda as the grandfather, Marilyn Manson as another boyfriend, Jackson, Lydia Lunch as one of the social workers, and a good friend of the real J.T., Winona Ryder, who plays an inept psychologist.
Tim Armstrong (Rancid, Transplants), who also has a role as Stinky, worked with Argento on the soundtrack on the film, which definitely reflected the era of ‘80s punk and rock ‘n’ roll.
But without knowing the background of the book and its lead character, the film, which only takes you to Jeremiah’s age of ten, leaves many loose ends. If this is a true story, what happened next? How did he survive? How did he get to be a published author at such a young age? How did he get to know enough of the right people to get his book into film?
Strip any of that knowing away, and you’re left with a very brutal, cringing film that leaves all those questions hanging. Life can be pretty ugly, and film is one art form that can definitely get across that message. So it can go either way. As a fan of J.T. Leroy and his writings, and of cinematic creations, this can be a very captivating, albiet shocking, experience. Or it can just leave you angry and haunted by the visuals that won’t leave your mind, knowing that what J.T. experienced is happening right now to God knows how many children.
The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things opens Friday, May 26 at Starz Film Center.