*EDITORIAL NOTE: This review was written prior to news regarding JT Leroy being a fictional creation.*
Coming of age. With so many films attempting to deal with the theme of losing one’s innocence either by confronting sexuality, death or the corruption of the adult world, the entire “coming of age” genre brings to mind as many worn cliché as any other workhorse genre such as horror or the Western.
While many have tried to tackle the idea that “growing up is hell” few have been as daring, effective or brutal as Asia Argento’s second feature film “The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things”. Based upon the autobiographical short stories of J.T. LeRoy, Argento presents an uncompromising view of one boy being thrust into a world he (or anyone else for that matter) does not belong.
At the age of seven Jeremiah (Jimmy Bennett) is taken from his foster home and returned to the care of his mother Sarah (Asia Argento). Pining for the love of his foster parents, Jeremiah runs away from his new home only to end up at a police station. As he waits to be picked up the officers give him some ice cream; that this will be the kindest gesture given to Jeremiah throughout the film says volumes. As Sarah bounces from vile boyfriend to vile boyfriend Jeremiah is repeatedly abused both physically and mentally by his mother and whatever significant other is with her at the time. After Sarah skips out on Jeremiah, leaving him with pedophile Emerson (Jeremy Renner), Jeremiah is found and placed in the custody of his overly religious grandparents (Peter Fonda and “Flash Gordon’s” Ornella Muti). Several years pass and as the older Jeremiah (played both by Dylan and Cole Sprouse) begins to accept his harsh, sterile home life he is kidnapped by his mother and her new boyfriend Kenny (Matt Schulze). That Jeremiah’s life only gets worse from here is an understatement as he and his mother spiral further and further downward in society.
While this film might sound virtually unwatchable it is in fact one of the best movies this year. In order to understand the success of “THIDAAT” it is important to realize what it is not. This is by no stretch of the imagination a Lifetime original movie type of film, the events are depicted openly and in such a way to provide maximum impact. This is not, however, to say the film is overtly graphic. In a story filled with beatings, psychological abuse, pedophilia and drug use, very little is shown and the most disturbing material is implied using effective directional flair as provided by Argento. Having been dressed as a girl by his mother because she always wanted one, Jeremiah begins to lose sight of his own needs and wants and begins to mirror the behavior of Sarah. He seduces her boyfriend Jackson (a down to earth Marilyn Manson) not because of his own feelings but because having studied his mothers self-destructive behavior he believes this is how adults act. The seduction is played out by first showing Jeremiah in drag, pantomiming his mother’s actions and then shifting to Argento playing the role, thus taking the child away and showing the representation of what he wishes to become. By having the scene play out between the confused Jackson and Argento, playing the fantasy version of Jeremiah, Argento as a director manages to make the scene fascinating and not as off putting as it would play out with the child in the same role. This is not to take away from the disgusting nature of the action, only to make it presentable to the audience in an engaging manner.
A film such as this, which is more of a character study of Jeremiah and Sarah than a plot driven film, hinges on the acting and the players rise to the occasion. Whereas the all the young actors portraying Jeremiah do a fantastic job reacting to the horrors around them, it is Argento who steals the show. Sarah is a junkie, a prostitute and has no idea how to take care of a child. When at one point she tenderly holds Jeremiah close and tells him that he’s all she has, the audience is saddened to realize that this statement is true. However despite these extreme flaws in Sarah’s character the key to this performance is that it is so understated. There is no grandstanding, no wire hangers speeches ala “Mommie Dearest”. In her own way Sarah does love Jeremiah but the scary part is her love is nowhere near good enough for him. In a scene late in the film, strung out and exhausted Sarah collapses on a lawn and Jeremiah throws his arms around her, telling her he’ll protect her. While appearing emotionally exhausted Sarah kisses him and seems to accept his comfort. This vision is both tender and terrifying. While it is a momentary connection between mother and son, we the audience know that Sarah will not reform and in the very next scene she is verbally berating him once more. Sarah and Jeremiah have a symbiotic relationship that is anything but healthy yet it is all either of them have.
Argento and her many boyfriends are villains of the highest order but are also all three dimensional characters. Human frailty is on display throughout this film with all the adults suffering from various cases of jealousy, anger, ignorance and most of all weakness. These are not demons with horns and pitchforks that torture Jeremiah but weak adults who are too stupid or lazy to resist their own base urges. This does not account for their behavior, they should all be held accountable for their terrible actions but at the same time the audience can see that these monsters are all too human.
Finally the direction of Argento must be commended because while a level of flair is apparent it never overwhelms the film. Expanding on the potential shown in her first feature “Scarlet Diva”, Argento demonstrates the directional maturity that is vital to this material succeeding. Events such as Jeremiah’s vision of grotesque red birds when he feels pain, his use of coal along with his imagination to substitute for toys and the seduction of Jackson are all handled with the right amount of style and pathos. Asia Argento also allows quiet moments to seep in, such as when given some money to get something to eat Jeremiah mixes together his cereal with jelly, sugar and ketchup: A mishmash of the niceties he has been denied for so long.
Suffice to say “The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things” is not a film for everyone. If you are squeamish about children being placed in danger then do not see this film. While much less graphically violent then a film such as “Irreversible” the ideas and situations are indeed horrifying. If, however, you are willing to take a dark ride you will be rewarded. Despite the suffering there is a level of hope. This is not a fictional grindhouse film, it’s a true story and Argento rises to the task both as actress and director in telling the painful account in an honest, engaging manner. J.T. LeRoy wrote as a form of catharsis and this film is a testament to his survival.