The Night Listener

Before the revelation that elusive writer J.T. Leroy was actually a hoax perpetrated by a San Francisco woman, there was the case of Anthony Godby Johnson, reportedly a terminally ill adolescent whose memoir, A Rock and a Hard Place, detailed a horrifying history of sexual abuse at the hands of his own parents. Johnson, who for health reasons communicated...read more

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Reviewed by Ken Fox
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Before the revelation that elusive writer J.T. Leroy was actually a hoax perpetrated by a San Francisco woman, there was the case of Anthony Godby Johnson, reportedly a terminally ill adolescent whose memoir, A Rock and a Hard Place, detailed a horrifying history of sexual abuse at the hands of his own parents. Johnson, who for health reasons communicated only by phone, formed an intensely emotional relationship with Tales of the City author Armistead Maupin. It continued for several years before Maupin became convinced he was the butt of an elaborate literary joke and that Johnson was the creation of his "guardian," Vicki Johnson. Johnson's identity has yet to be definitively established, but the tale inspired Maupin's The Night Listener, a typical blend of personal experience and fiction through which Maupin attempts to come to terms with the emotional blowback and achieve some closure. Coscreenwriter/director Patrick Stettner (THE BUSINESS OF STRANGERS) drops the feel-good bit and goes the book one better with a definitive finale. Reeling from the breakup of his 10-year relationship with boyfriend Jess (Bobby Cannavale), openly gay NYC radio personality Gabriel Noone (Robin Williams) is sent a manuscript by his editor, Ashe (Joe Morton). Written by a 14-year-old boy named Pete Logand (Rory Culkin), the book, "The Blacking Factory," is a memoir detailing the appalling life of a young boy held as a sex slave by his parents, who pimp him out to other adults. Pete is now slowly dying from AIDS in the isolation of semirural Wisconsin, where he lives with his fiercely protective guardian, Donna (the always dependable Toni Collette). Donna refuses to disclose his location — she's afraid his victimizers might try to silence him for good — and refuses to allow her fragile charge any visitors. It's an incredible story — a little too incredible, some might say — but the hurt and vulnerable Noone is hooked and enters into an intense, soul-bearing phone friendship with this mysterious, preternaturally wise youth and, by extension, Donna. But not everyone is convinced: Jess notes that Donna's and Pete's voices are remarkably similar; Noone's assistant (Sandra Oh) suggests a voiceprint to put the matter to rest, but Gabriel instead hops a plane for the frozen hinterlands in search of a boy who may not even exist. This is Williams in tolerable downplay mode — something for which we're always meant to feel grateful — and he gives an affecting performance, though the film's brief running time affords him little opportunity to explore the depth of his attachment to Pete (in the book, they call each other "Dad" and "Son"… creepy). But where the hero of Maupin's novel learns some valuable lessons about love and faith, the film strikes a darker, even angry tone that's far more understandable and, in the end, far more convincing.

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  • Released: 2006
  • Rating: R
  • Review: Before the revelation that elusive writer J.T. Leroy was actually a hoax perpetrated by a San Francisco woman, there was the case of Anthony Godby Johnson, reportedly a terminally ill adolescent whose memoir, A Rock and a Hard Place, detailed a horrifying… (more)

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