Wild (2016)

Sundance 2016: ‘Wild’ + ‘Author: The JT LeRoy Story’

Two films at the Sundance Film Festival -- Wild and Author: The JT LeRoy Story -- challenge familiar categories.

Categories matter in Park City. They help you decide what to see, where to go, and sometimes, whom you might befriend. You’ll be waiting in line for a screening at the press tent in front of the Holiday, or standing in front of the counter at El Chubasco, about to order your burrito, and you’ll get into a conversation with someone. If you don’t happen to have your Sundance Festival badge protruding over your heavy coat, the other person will slightly squint their eyes and ask you, in effect, what it is you’re doing here. Depending on your response — Actor! Critic! Buyer! — the conversation will or will not resume, with the tacit understanding that your new acquaintance now has you categorized.

Categories can help us order our time and what we know. But when we run into challenges to that order, people or events that are malleable, we might rethink our assumptions. Nicolette Krebitz’s gonzo parable Wild, offers one sort of challenge.

Ania (Lilith Stangenberg) appears to be bored and depressed, living a routine, with a morning commute to an IT job. Then one morning she spots a wolf in a local park. Not satisfied with merely feeding it, she hatches a peculiar plan to capture the wolf, take him home to her high-rise apartment and, for lack of a better term, seduce him into becoming her life partner. In the process, she also ditches her dull job and her domineering boss (Georg Friedich) and ignores her younger sister (Silke Bodenbender), who recently moved out of the room the wolf now uneasily inhabits.

This last part is where the film shines, and eventually completely goes off course. Ania becomes increasingly unkempt, both physically and morally. One night she steals a wad of bills from her dead drunk boss, another she uses her own menstruation blood to lure the wolf out of her sister’s room and onto her naked body. Before the film is finished, we’ve also witnessed her torture a rabbit, leaving it in the apartment alone with the wolf (“Break a leg!” she tells it before shutting the front door), have sex with her boss on his desk before defecating on it and then setting the whole place on fire with her cigarette.

It may be that Ania is discarding her indentured humanity for a kind of freedom. But she does something else, too. She bends a familiar concept of nature into an original personal myth, one that also deeply satisfies her sexually. The wolf — and the entire natural world — capitulates to her seduction, an idea so outlandish you keep expecting this all to be in her head. But again, the film does something else: in Krebitz’s conception, nature is just another app you can plug into in order to gain fulfillment.

Author: The JT LeRoy Story (2016)

Another film that takes on the idea of wildness is showing in Sundance’s redoubtable documentary series. Author: The JT LeRoy Story, directed by Jeff Feuerzeig (who made The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005)), brings us the compelling story of LeRoy. LeRoy is a celebrated teen writer in the late ’90s who posited himself as a homeless kid turning tricks for money. He portrayed himself as sexually abused as a child whose mother was a truck stop prostitute and he is now (purportedly) HIV positive.

His first novel, Sarah (Bloomsbury, 2000), was a literary sensation, earning the attention of a long list of in-the-know celebrities, including Courtney Love, Winona Ryder, Matthew Modine, and Gus van Sant, who wanted very much to turn the novel into a film. LeRoy’s follow up collection of stories, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things (Bloomsbury, 2001), won even more notice for the reclusive author, who never did interviews.

The reason for all this secrecy, the film reminds us, is that LeRoy is a bizarre fiction unto himself, the brainchild of Laura Albert. Her habit is to call famous people — authors, musicians, directors — to pose as LeRoy and engage them in long conversations, revealing her created identity in small bits and pieces. Her literary success created a new problem, however: how was she to represent the mysterious LeRoy, now equipped with an enormous cult following?

The documentary tracks Albert’s ingenious solution, which is to enlist her sister-in-law, a younger woman with short hair to act as Leroy, using wigs, hats, and sunglasses. This version of LeRoy becomes a jet-setting superstar, going to Cannes for the premiere of the Asia Argento film based on her stories collection, reading in New York and San Francisco. Eventually, a journalist for New York magazine and then the New York Times exposed the ruse, bringing a hellfire of scorn upon Albert’s head.

The documentary offers Albert herself, now a worldly sort of woman with emphatic eyes, explaining her decisions in ways that are suspect, sympathetic, and wildly fascinating. She points out that, unlike the work of James Frey, for example, her stories were always categorized as fiction. If not for the fictional Leroy, her work might be judged as such.

It appears in the film that the layers on top of layers Albert used to camouflage herself have wrung something essential out of her. She is quick to point out that she does not suffer from multiple personality disorder, since she was always in control of what character appeared and when, but the act of self-expression through numerous filters has left her spent.

Whatever her grasp of herself as a person, Albert remains very aware of what she did and to whom it might have mattered the most. Upon the outing of her true identity, one of her first calls was to van Sant, the filmmaker who staked a fair amount of capital on her fictive creation. Notably, in one of the many, many recorded phone calls the film employs (Albert, for her part, seems to have been a compulsive recorder), van Sant sounds less piqued than what we might call bemused, leaving us with yet another category problem.

Years from now, we might see if Albert’s literary output holds up to critical scrutiny. Until then, this fascinating documentary allows us to contemplate the very nature of fiction.