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To call something a “hoax” or someone a “fraud” may be an accurate description, but it’s also an act of minimization. Deceptions can be unmasked, but those words only describe the act of deceiving, not the abundance of psychological, social, and cultural forces that motivate the deception. When best-selling wunderkind Jeremy “Terminator” Leroy was revealed to be a creation of Laura Albert, an adult woman from Brooklyn, in 2006, journalists who had been duped by her lie dubbed it a hoax. Ten years later, documentarian Jeff Feuerzeig (The Devil and Daniel Johnston) has teamed up with Albert herself on Author: The JT Leroy Story, which reveals a more complete picture of a very complicated woman.

The film opens strong, swiftly establishing its subject’s popularity and talent. Celebrities like Winona Ryder, Madonna, and Courtney Love embraced Leroy’s writing, and Albert, who twisted her voice into a childish Southern drawl, recorded their phone conversations, which are played in the film. Feuerzeig follows with a bit of Leroy’s sparkling prose, brought to life in crudely effective animations based on Albert’s journal drawings from her time in a group home for abused children.

If you’re getting confused with the names, don’t worry. That’s the point, and the film diligently details how she pulled off this magic trick. After the first book was published under her nom de plume, the media requests for Leroy start to pile up. Albert pays her sister-in-law, Savannah, to act as Leroy in public, and she creates another identity for herself—Speedie, Leroy’s brash British friend—to handle all the bookings and revel in the sudden celebrity attention. Bono invites her backstage to give her career advice. Actors Michael Pitt and Asia Argento have actual love affairs with Leroy (that is, Savannah). Albert gets jealous, and starts to self-sabotage by telling a few select people the truth. It’s a crucial error, as the best plate-spinners know to end the show before their balance starts to fail.

Still, most of the movie proceeds not with dread but with genuine delight at her gamesmanship. There is hypocrisy in this, as Author succumbs to the same weakness it accuses Albert of. It derides the need for attention that drove Albert, but it trades on those same impulses. Consider the recorded phone call between Albert and Courtney Love, who pauses to snort a line of cocaine. There is no story-based reason to leave that moment in, but Feuerzeig knew it would dazzle. While there is much to like in Author, it’s troubling to think that fans of TMZ might get their rocks off watching it.

On the whole, it succeeds for the questions it asks, not the ones it cheaply answers. Why was everyone—the publishing world, celebrities, film directors—so quick to believe this story? And what value does her acclaimed literature have now that we know the whole story? Perhaps most impressive is that the film remains inquisitive about Albert herself right to the end. It gives her a mouthpiece to tell her story, but each shot of her holds a second or two too long, creating tension and implicitly asking us to question her tale. Towards the end of the film, she puts it neatly: “My goal is I wanted to be a healthy human being, and everything came out of that desire,” she says. But she says it in JT’s voice, and by then we know better than to believe it. Sometimes lies reveal more than truth. 

Author: The JT Leroy Story opens Friday at E Street Cinema.