" The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?"
Seven year old Jeremiah (Jimmy Bennett, "Firewall") has an ideal life with loving foster parents when his young single mother Sarah (Asia Argento, "Land of the Dead") demands him back. The young boy is immediately thrust into a nightmare world of drugs, alcohol, prostitution and abuse and quickly learns that "The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things."
Mysterious autobiographical writing sensation JT Leroy was recently debunked as a hoax, but writer/director Asia Argento made her film presumably believing it to be true. Hindsight is always 20:20, but from this story's onset one begins to question the just how this mother, who resembles Courtney Love on a good day, could ever have won back custody of her child. That said, Argento has made a ferocious film including her own committed performance, but like her character, she loses control in the final goings.
When Jeremiah rejects his welcome home meal of unheated spaghettios, Sarah immediately loses patience and calls him a brat. She stages a phone call from his 'fosters' but refuses to let the desperate child talk to them. Soon they're on the road, sharing pills and guzzling beers. Jeremiah witnesses his mother turning tricks and endures her johns' ideas of discipline. Then Sarah gets married and he's left behind, told not to unlock the door. Days later, stepdad Emerson (Jeremy Renner, "North Country") returns alone after Sarah ran out on him and rapes the boy. Jeremiah finally receives some formal medical and psychiatric attention (JT Leroy fan Winona Ryder cameos as a shrill shrink) and things seem like they may look up when he's claimed by his Grandmother (Ornella Muti, "Oscar," "The Trilogy"), a fundamentalist religious nut who returns him to the home run by Grandfather (Peter Fonda, "Ulee's Gold") where he meets his mother's siblings. It's soon apparent how she got the way she is.
Years pass and the eleven year-old (now played by the less involving Dylan and Cole Sprouse of the Disney Channel's "The Suite Life of Zack and Cody") is preaching in the town square when dear old mom shows up to rescue him once more. Soon she's including him in her act, dressing him as a pretty girl who her stoned men friends, like live-in Jackson (Marilyn Manson, "Lost Highway," "Party Monster"), can't tell apart from his mama. By the end of their second run, Jeremiah's back in emergency and Sarah's so gone she's committed, but when Grandmother arrives to reclaim him, the young boy springs his mother and the two take to the road again.
Argento has seemingly styled her performance as a cross between Courtney Love and Nancy Spungen, right down to her hair, makeup and wardrobe, but it is difficult to buy into Sarah's fight for a child who initially seems only an inconvenience. Nor does it make much sense how not only does she get the boy, but has him returned by police after he's run away. Not until the film's midsection, where we see how her parents operate (morning washup is a sick daily torture ritual), do we gain any insight into Sarah's motivations and by the time she returns, the film slips gears.
Argento clearly has talent as a director, though, and has handled her material sensitively. Camerawork, sound and music have been worked out to provoke various moods and some bits of animation are startling and effective. The who's who of hip indie actors who parade throughout the film (Kip Pardue of "Thirteen," Michael Pitt of "Last Days," John Robinson of "Elephant" among others) make varying impressions. One can only presume the actors were drawn to the notoriety of the author as those cast in the film's final third, like Manson and Pitt, enter and exit with little explanation.
"The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things" frequently resembles Greg Araki's superior "Mysterious Skin," but its punk rock sensibilities eventually drown out its message. The sensationalism of the material is clearly meant to shock, but after being pounded with it incessantly numbness sets in.
Young Jeremiah (Jimmy Bennett) has lived a happy life with his foster parents but that ends abruptly when his birth mother, Sarah (Asia Argento), shows up on their doorstep. She loudly informs all that she is there to take legal custody of her son. What was once a normal life for a normal boy soon becomes a nightmare of drugs, booze, prostitution and eating out of dumpsters in “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things.”
Asia Argento (daughter of Dario) wears three hats – screenwriter, director and star – in her adaptation of the infamous T.J. Leroy short story collection by the same name. The result is sometimes gut-wrenching tale that begs you to ask the question: where the heck are the social services that are supposed to protect children?
Sarah is demanding, abusive and an abuser. She literally rips Jeremiah out of his safe, foster home sanctuary to fulfill some motherly feelings that, when drugs, booze and men come into play, are quickly smothered. Her son is nothing more than a toy for her as she continues her debauched life of prostitution and substance abuse. And, there is a steady stream of new “fathers” for the boy to cope with. One “father” meets Jeremiah’s bedwetting problem by repeated beatings with a leather belt. Another “dad” sodomizes the child, putting him into the hospital. Jeremiah doesn’t fare too well with the others, either.
When Jeremiah runs away and is taken to the safe haven of the local sheriff’s office, he thinks he has escaped but is soon retrieved by the outwardly caring Sarah. She gets married yet again and the happy couple head off on their honeymoon – leaving Jeremiah locked in the house for days with little more to eat than some cheese and chips. “The Heart…” is a sad story of child abuse and the viewer watches with a helpless, nauseous feeling to the end.
Jimmy Bennett is outstanding as young Jeremiah, conveying the youngster’s desperation as his life runs out of control at Sarah’s hand. The youthful actor is the focus of attention for the first half of the film and Bennett has good screen chemistry. Twins Cole and Dylan Sprouse play the older Jeremiah and they are called upon to feminize the boy, again at Sarah’s perverse hand, in some of the story’s creepiest moments.
There is a solid cast providing support to Jeremiah and Sarah. They are given mere cameo roles with Peter Fonda as Jeremiah’s stern, Christian fundamentalist grandfather; Ornella Muti is seen only briefly as the boy’s equally stern grandmother; other young actors include Kip Pardue, Michael Pitt, Jeremy Renner and John Robinson. Marilyn Manson, sans makeup, does a credible job as one of the “fathers.”
Asia Argento channels Sarah as a cross between Courtney Love and Nancy Spungen (of Sid & Nancy fame). She is menacing, manic and, even, a monster as she purposely sets about making life hell for her son. Her undercurrent of Italian accent seemed a little weird at time but Argento does a good job depicting a woman on the hairy edge.
Argento the writer-director keeps things interesting as Sarah moves from one sleazy circumstance to the next, dragging Jeremiah through the mire with her. The story conveys so much emotion that I found myself wanting to yell at the screen, “Leave that boy alone!” It’s not often that I have that level of involvement with the characters in a film. I give it a B-.
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