Our reviews of the festival's films about alienation, deception, and things that go bump in the night.
We’re watching our way through the Hot Docs festival roster and telling you which films to see and which you might want to pass on. Today, we round up the docs most likely to become cult classics.
The Cult of JT LeRoy
Directed by Majorie Sturm
Scotiabank Theatre 4 – Sat, Apr 25, 7 p.m.
ROM Theatre – Mon, Apr 27 4:15 p.m.
Fox Theatre – Fri, May 1, 4:30 p.m.
TIFF Bell Lightbox 1 – Sun, May 3, 2 p.m.
The Cult of JT LeRoy by Marjorie Sturm could potentially be the most star-studded film in the entire Hot Docs festival. In 90 minutes, names like Billy Corgan, Courtney Love, Rufus Wainwright, Gus Van Zandt, Carrie Fisher, Rosario Dawson, Nancy Sinatra, Lou Reed, Ben Foster, and many, many more are seen extolling the virtues of writer JT LeRoy. Known as a teenage literary genius with a background of childhood abuse, homelessness, and prostitution, this documentary tracks JT’s rise from troubled youth to A-list celebrity with a biopic and legions of fans or followers, lending the mention of “cult” in the title. Director Marjorie Sturm is also present when the tide starts to turn, and LeRoy’s famous social anxiety and lack of public appearances start to bring into question the young man’s identity, and the revelations result in one of the most infamous literary scandals in recent history. While featuring interviews with close “friends” of JT LeRoy, Sturm not only dives deep into the fascinating fiasco, but essentially skewers celebrity culture in the process. In the end, the film leaves the viewer to assess their own blind fandom, wherever it may lie, and addresses another very contemporary question today: What happens to the art when the artist is disgraced? Now, we might think of examples like Bill Cosby and Woody Allen, but JT LeRoy was there first.
– Carly Maga
Welcome to Leith
Directed by Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker
TIFF Bell Lightbox 1 – Sat, Apr 25, 2 p.m.
Hart House Theatre – Sun, Apr 26 1 p.m.
TIFF Bell Lightbox 1 – Thurs, Apr 30, 1:30 p.m.
Leith, North Dakota has a population of 24 and plots of land for sale for $500 and, generally, they’ll be more than pleased if someone decides to join their community. That is, until Craig Cobb moves in and starts buying up property, which he then gives to his white-supremacist friends in order to take political control over the town and push their agenda. The residents of Leith could probably make a documentary on their own—there’s the cowboy mayor in over his head, the hard-worn Seattle man who moved his family after his daughter was murdered, and the eccentric loudmouth with a camera taped to his hand—but the population of Leith takes on a whole new role within this out-of-this-world story as they defend their home. What begins as the most good-versus-evil story one could ever imagine eventually turns into a cautionary tale of how hate begets more hate, and lax gun laws turn a peaceful town into a hotbed of fear. But beyond just Leith, this is a terrifying look at the rise of hate groups across America (and Canada too) through online forums and videos. Directors Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker take inspiration from the barren North Dakota landscape in this dull, grey-toned film with a mesmerizing soundtrack by T. Griffin. It illustrates an environment without money, prospects, or industry—not that those are the only factors that contribute to the spread of racism—but argues that even in those environments, good neighbours aren’t always hard to find.
– Carly Maga
Directed by Rodney Ascher
Hart House Theatre – Mon, Apr 27, 9:45 p.m.
TIFF Bell Lightbox 2 – Tue, Apr 28, 1:15 p.m.
Revue Cinema – Sat, May 2, 9:15 p.m.
TIFF Bell Lightbox 1 – Sun, May 3, 9:30 p.m.
Rodney Ascher takes an off-putting twist in his horror-themed documentaries, hybrids of pure documentary storytelling, cinematic recreations, and archival footage splicing. Best known for his 2012 film Room 237, which amassed a cult following by exploring the endlessly fascinating conspiracy theories surrounding Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Ascher makes an unforgettable return to the screen with The Nightmare. Instead of immersing audiences in the enigma of Kubrick’s films, he plunges us into the worlds of sleep-paralysis victims from across the United States and England. As the interview subjects describe their experiences in terrifying detail, Ascher exercises his unique visual aesthetic with dramatic recreations, incorporating classic horror techniques like atmospheric soundtracks, jump cuts, and suspenseful pacing. Through this combination of interviews and recreations, the audience endures the fright, stress, confusion, and exhaustion right along with the victims. And as he splices himself, his crew, and the studio film set into the sequences, we feel even more on edge; it continues to blur the questions: Who or what is causing these experiences? Who or what is in control? Is anyone safe, including the audience? Blending Nightmare on Elm Street–like visuals, a Halloween–like score, and a vague ending that recalls The Ring, the result is one of the scariest movies (let alone documentaries) in the past year. A lot of films at Hot Docs will make you sleep less easily at night, but there may be none other this year that can do so quite as dramatically.
– Carly Maga
Orion: The Man Who Would Be King
Directed by Jeanie Finlay
Scotiabank Theatre 10 – Thu, Apr 30, 4:30 p.m.
Royal Cinema – Sun May 3, 8:45 p.m.
To tweak a phrase by Ralph Waldo Emerson: talent alone cannot make a musician. Consider poor Jimmy Ellis, an Alabama-based entertainer who had the misfortune of sounding exactly like Elvis Presley (one of his early singles bore the slightly disingenuous title “I’m Trying Not to Sound Like Elvis”). After Elvis’s death, Sun Records saw an opportunity and rebranded Ellis as “Orion”—a masked, jumpsuit-wearing singer who they strongly implied was the real thing (never mind that what was visible of his face and body had no resemblance to the King). For a few years, Ellis/“Orion” became a minor star south of the Mason-Dixon line, but resented the mask he was contractually obliged to wear. Even without the mask, he could only remind people of Elvis.
Anyone with a soft spot for Elvis impersonators—or the detritus of celebrity culture in general—should get a kick out of this documentary, which is funny and sad without being condescending to its subject. Director Jeanie Finlay makes a strong case for Ellis’s talent while also making it clear why his career was doomed from the start. Being able to sing exactly like Elvis is great, so long as you happen to become famous just before Elvis.
– Will Sloan