Tuesday, 10 May 2011

This Film Is Bleak, Above All Things

I vaguely recall when I was in school, and following the publication of A Child Called It there was a brief 'boom' in the trend for 'professional victim' stories. In all honesty, they never really appealed to me. I didn't fancy the idea of reading about someone else's tragedy, or the horrific ordeals a young child had gone through at the hands of people who were supposed to care for them. There's enough of that all around us, I thought, why would I willingly read a book about it?

About five years ago, though, in my (cough) Kerrang!-reading days, there was one story which really struck me. I don't know if it was the story itself, or the enigmatic figure behind it. JT Leroy had become something of a cult celebrity victim, befriending alternative icons like Courtney Love, Billy Corgan, Shirley Manson and film maker Asia Argento. He was never seen in public without a blonde wig and dark glasses, and rarely spoke in public. His childhood was one of unimaginable suffering, but he'd come through it, writing about his experiences in both counter-culture and well-known magazines and winning over the celeb world with his triumph over adversity.
I found Leroy's story fascinating, especially as I'd just watched Gus van Sant's Elephant; the screenplay for which was accredited to Leroy. His books Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things were added to my Must Read list. I then found out that the latter had been adapted into a film by Asia Argento, with whom I was a teeny bit obsessed at the time. It didn't have a huge run in cinemas- somewhat understandably, I guess- and I couldn't track down the DVD, and in the time it took me to hunt it down, JT Leroy had been exposed as a hoax. He was actually Laura Albert, and his story was in fact pure fiction. It had kind of soured the idea of watching the film for me- but after watching it, I'm glad for the character's sake that it wasn't real.

The film never relents in its depiction of the abuse suffered by 'Jeremiah'. The first scene shows him being ripped from the arms of his foster parents, who want to adopt him. His mother Sarah, a drug-addicted truck-stop prostitute, had him when she was 15, and has decided she wants him back. She bounces from one abusive relationship to the next, temporarily losing her son to her fundamentalist Christian parents after he is raped by her latest boyfriend. Drug abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse and vagrancy all become normal for Jeremiah, especially once he's back with Sarah. She forces him to grow his hair and dress as a girl, calling him Babydoll. Jeremiah apes his mothers' actions, turning tricks and seducing her boyfriends.
It sounds like grim viewing, and yeah, it's a hard slog. In as much as I was glad that the story was made up after all, I couldn't understand why someone would write a story like this. The characters fall into increasingly worsening circumstances and there is no hope, not even in the traditional 'drive into the horizon' ending. The cast is a jaw-dropping array of names and faces, who float in and out as the nomadic leads move from one lot to the next. Jeremy Renner, Peter Fonda, Marilyn Manson (!), Winona Ryder, Ben Foster, Michael Pitt all make an appearance. Not all huge names, but recognisable enough to know that the story must have had some clout. The performances are all good, with some outstanding. Peter Fonda's tyrannous Grandfather is religiously terrifying, Argento as Sarah is a hopelessly lost girl in the body of a snarling, feral junkie. The real revelation(s) though, are twins Cole and Dylan Sprouse. As 11-year-old Jeremiah, they portray him accepting his life as normal, emotionally detatched on the outside but with occasional flashes that show that there's still a sad little boy in there somewhere. And all this from the wee boys from Big Daddy and Friends? It's quite something.

The film's look is as ferocious and visceral as its subject matter, and there's no Hollywood sheen to it at all. Argento is clearly unafraid of taking risks, unsurprising given her pedigree. She is unflinching in how she portrays Sarah and Jeremiah's lives, and doesn't cave into smoothing out the rough hewn edges of the story. It is fast paced and characters are introduced with little to no backstory, although this isn't a criticism- in Jeremiah's eyes, this is how they appear. The editing, direction and story move along with speed, but they manage to cram in alot in its relatively short running time. At the same time, it doesn't feel forced, or rushed, and the pain in the leads' eyes show that there is a tragically emotional undertone to it after all. There is a pulpish trashiness to the look of the film, and although the at times it feels exploitative, it's does so as it is devoted to its source material.

Harrowing, relentless, nasty and cheap but with Hollywood clout that belies its relative obscurity, this is a film not to be taken lightly. I watched it after Dead Man's Shoes and I still felt a bit 'funny' the next day. It's rare I feel so affected by a film, but this one is a lingerer. Despite it being a hoax, it made me wonder. What with A Child Called It and other books of its ilk, it's worth remembering that there are probably real-life Jeremiahs out there. Ones who will never get the chance to be 'professional victims', because they have no way of escaping their lifestyles. And it's the ones without a voice, I think, that are the saddest of all.

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