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Movies, dining and things to do / Spokane and North Idaho

SIFF 2016, day three: Stranger than fiction

(Pictured: An animated Gael García Bernal in “Zoom”)

My dispatches from the 42nd annual Seattle International Film Festival continue below, with a couple of absorbing documentaries and a dirty-minded whatsit from Brazil.

“Author: The JT LeRoy Story” – The particulars of JT LeRoy’s ascendancy in the ranks of the literary world are so convoluted and so insane that it’s almost impossible to believe it really happened. In the late ’90s and early 2000s, a San Francisco writer named Laura Albert began publishing sordid tales of truck stop hookers and drug addicts under the sobriquet Jeremiah “Terminator” LeRoy, who was described as being a young man whose life had thus been defined by vagrancy, prostitution and physical abuse.

LeRoy’s vivid style and enigmatic persona caught the attention of the literati, so Albert hired her 20-something sister-in-law to don a short blonde wig and large sunglasses and to pose as LeRoy during public appearances. “JT” became something of a cult hero and fashion icon, rubbing elbows with film directors, rock stars and tastemakers. Everyone was fooled.

Jeff Feurerzeig’s documentary “Author: The JT LeRoy Story” is an engrossing record of the most elaborate literary ruse since Clifford Irving’s fake Howard Hughes memoir, and it only gets crazier as it rolls along. Albert herself, who posed for years as LeRoy’s British assistant, is on-screen for much of the film, explaining why and how she did what she did, and why her JT LeRoy guise shouldn’t be considered a hoax.

“Author” certainly makes us consider Albert’s pathology – think about how much energy it must have required to keep up such a complicated ploy – but it’s really about the elusive nature of fiction and how the art scene values personality and a colorful backstory above all else. Walking out of the theater, I had completely different questions than the ones I had walking in, but I don’t think any two-hour film could conceivably cover all of the strange wrinkles of this story. It’s fascinating.

“Gleason” – I’ll be writing more about “Gleason” in the coming months – I’m told it will likely play Spokane in the late summer – so I won’t spend much time on it here, except to say it’s one of the most emotional experiences I’ve had in a theater in some time. Directed by J. Clay Tweel (“Finders Keepers”), the documentary is a look at Spokane native and former NFL linebacker Steve Gleason as he and his wife Michel grapple with his intensifying ALS symptoms. It’s harrowing and life affirming in equal measure, and one of the most candid, unflinching portraits of illness I’ve ever seen. If you do have a chance to make it to SIFF, “Gleason” plays on Saturday and Sunday at the Egyptian.

“Zoom” – A crazed, ambitious, cheekily perverse nesting doll of a comedy, in which three individual plots with distinct visual styles begin to merge and eventually swallow one another whole. The film’s elliptical structure allows for each of the film’s trio of main characters – an aspiring comic book artist (Allison Pill), a womanizing film director (Gael García Bernal, rendered in rotoscoped animation) and a Brazilian fashion model (Mariana Ximenes) – to alter and influence one another’s storylines in increasingly unexpected ways.

Director Pedro Morelli and writer Matt Hansen have never made a feature before, and “Zoom” sometimes plays like they crammed every idea they’d ever had onto the screen: Subplots involve smuggled cocaine, a life-size latex sex doll, meddling Hollywood producers, an infomercial personality, plastic surgery, a lesbian bar owner and an unfortunate emasculation. The film ends up being far too pleased with its own lunatic construction – I get the sense that this was specifically tailored to find a cult audience – but it’s certainly never boring.

Tomorrow: A wannabe rapper, and the latest from Japan’s weirdest director.