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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Mother and Child Reunion
by Donald Levit

My self-protective culture filter must be working. Seemingly everyone but me at the screening of The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things knew about the author, his/her three successful publications and reported celebrity pals, not to mention the work of the director-cowriter-star. Adapted from “the controversial story that ‘JT Leroy’ claims to have lived,” Asia Argento’s film is of a piece with the book as an indication of what mass culture has been fashioned into. It's unfortunate that the 1970 Trash -- the sexually liberating Morrissey-Warhol cinema verité-style venture which had the self-awareness to be ironic in its choice of name -- already usurped that title.

The trouble with this current trash is that granddaughter of producer Salvatore and sometimes estranged daughter of declined goremaster director-screenwriter Dario -- and “a young woman and mother myself” -- Argento nevertheless has not achieved distance to see the damaging absurdity of such stuff when, Lord knows, the floodgates have opened on so many true appalling instances of child abuse. Far from being her “tale of hope [and] respect for the truth and honesty [and of] the male-dominated society [that] distorts natural maternal instincts,” the drug- and punk rock-milieu and cinematic technique further debase what was low to begin with.

Subsequent reading has shown how ludicrous (and profitable) the whole thing was, a cross of Michael Jackson with the worst of purple Southern Gothic. Revelations of scholarly plagiarism and journalistic fabrication -- today’s newest, the formerly counterculture Village Voice -- and the (profitable) Oprah-Frey-Talese merry-go-round have given a black eye to talented literary leg-pulls like Macpherson’s Ossian “translations” or Chatterton’s “Rowley” poems, or purposeful ones like the Brontë sisters as brothers Bell or Mary Ann Evans as George Eliot, Doris Lessing’s go as Jane Somer, Jean Shepherd’s I, Libertine, Chuck Ross’ re-submission as Erik Demos of Jerzy Kosinski’s Steps, or the twenty-four Newsday staffers’ Penelope Ashe’s Naked Came the Stranger.

Details of the flushing out of the person behind the short, bewigged, androgynous “author” and “his” female housemate and spokesperson, are the grist of celebrity press and its readers. But even in a society where “virtual” replaces “real” and experience on game- and monitor-screens substitutes for life lived, the sad truth of “JT Leroy” is a circus-and-cash cheapening of children’s safety issues. The making of this film, and the schlock-shock way in which it is done, only adds fuel to the fire of decadence and ignores a serious urgency.

Once again there is the ploy of asking that reviews not reveal “plot points,” so that prospective audiences can see the film virgin and “discover his story” as it unfolds. But, even arguing that most stories could have accommodated alternative endings, there is nothing to discover here. Bed-wetting and thumb-sucking, visited by visions of the happy foster home from which nasty social workers have ripped him, seven-year-old Jeremiah (Jimmy Bennett) is returned to his birth mother. Recent headlines show that similar miscarriages do indeed occur, for at twenty-two thumb-sucking Sarah (Argento) is broke, totally irresponsible, and a cheap-white-trash substance-abusing hooker in all but cash payment. Abandoning her projects apartment, she takes the child on the road in a red Buick and through a series of lovers and one brief husband-for-half-a-honeymoon, redneck truckers preferred.

In an unnecessary stunt, the growing boy is played by twins Dylan and Cole Sprouse -- whose “mothers [sic]” Argento “made sure to get to know” -- as initial rebelliousness turns to acclimatization, even to dressing and making up like mom and, hard to say for certain with fragmentary dream-vision, seducing one boyfriend by pretending to be her.

At one point he is reclaimed by Sarah’s hated hateful parents, whom she blames for her miseries and preventing her “flushing [Jeremiah] down a toilet.” His acting a caricature of a caricature, Grandfather Peter Fonda runs a tight, cheerless Bible-beating Victorian household, strapping his numerous children’s palms just as Sarah’s beau-of-the-moment Luther (Kip Pardue) had leathered her son’s backside. Fleshier but still beautiful, still wooden, Ornella Muti is marvelously out of place as Grandmother in these West Virginia hills. Including a reappearance to read us the resolution, her embarrassing participation is, like her mate’s, mercifully minute.

Sarah’s environment is limited and limiting, of course, as are the choices she can and does make, but except for one brief feeble half-grownup, a brief punished ambiguous Aaron (John Robinson) and literally three seconds of a black nurse, everyone would be odious if we cared enough to care. In similar circumstances in failed Breakfast on Pluto, Cillian Murphy’s Patrick-“Kitten” performance nonetheless wins sympathy, but here there is nothing, no one with whom to empathize.

Devoid of social value, let alone “redeeming,” this deleterious movie merits negative thematic points. And as filmmaking, or form, it limps, too, and doesn’t make it far beyond the other side of zero.

(Released by Palm Pictures and rated “R” for intense depiction of child abuse/neglect, strong sex and drug content, pervasive language and some violence.)

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