Based on the autobiographical novel by J.T. LeRoy, the film begins as seven-year old Jeremiah (Jimmy Bennett) is taken from his loving foster parents and delivered back into the hands of his birth mother, Sarah (Argento, doing a Courtney Love impersonation). Why this fast-living tart has decided she wants to care for her son is never explained. Sarah is trailer trash at its most horrifying, drinking beer, popping pills and having Jeremiah bear witness to her sordid love affairs with pathetic lowlifes. Eventually, Jeremiah goes to live with his Bible-thumping grandparents (Peter Fonda and Ornella Muti, the latter channeling Nurse Diesel from Mel Brooks' "High Anxiety") and after three years in their ultra-religious care he is a changed boy--until Sarah reappears to undo one form of damage and replace it with another. It's all very apocalyptic and Argento seems to think the more depressing and dark the circumstances, the more we'll feel for Jeremiah. However, her inability to show us anything other than depressing and dark makes the film a one-note bore.
"The Heart is Deceitful" is the opposite of accomplished filmmaking. Since the subject matter is inherently unpleasant, a director with maturity and wisdom is needed to navigate its difficult waters. But subtlety is not part of Argento's limited repertoire, so the film displays all the heartfelt emotions of a Goth rock music video. Scenes are generally formless, featuring amateur blocking and unimaginatively shot composition. Characters struggle to achieve one dimension. Sarah is a shrew at the beginning and a shrew at the end and, with nothing else to do except be a bad mother, she becomes wearisome. Unfortunately, Argento, who adapted the original book with Alessandro Magania, is either unable or unwilling to find any shading in Sarah. By film's end, no one travels even the tiniest character arc and while in some films that may be the point, here the creators cared more about the abrasive sound design and talking lumps of coal (you don't wanna know) than crafting real human beings. Starring Asia Argento, Jimmy Bennett, Dylan Sprouse and Cole Sprouse. Directed by Asia Argento. Written by Asia Argento and Alessandro Magania. Produced by Chris Hanley, Alain de la Mata, Roberto Hanley and Brian Young. No distributor set. Drama. Rated R for intense depiction of child abuse/neglect, strong sex and drug content, pervasive language and some violence. Running time: 97 min.