JT LeRoy, 2018.
Directed by Justin Kelly.
Starring Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern, Diane Kruger, Jim Sturgess, Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Courtney Love.
The true story of the literary phenomenon, who was actually not a troubled young man, but a middle-aged woman working with the aid of her partner’s androgynous sister.
The story of JT LeRoy is a truly fascinating one, particularly in an era that has seen phrases like “fake news” and “alternative facts” burst into the public arena. Against that landscape, the true story of a cult of personality that sprung up around an entirely artificial pseudonymous character is ample fodder for a big screen adaptation. Justin Kelly’s fourth feature casts an engrossing eye over this famous fraud, and the people behind it.
Kelly’s story begins with extroverted writer Laura Albert (Laura Dern) already enjoying major success in the literature world for her novels published under the pseudonym of JT LeRoy – the sexually abused son of a prostitute. She is living with her musician partner Geoffrey Knoop (Jim Sturgess) and when Geoffrey’s sister, Savannah (Kristen Stewart), comes to stay, Laura spots an opportunity. People are clamouring to see JT in the flesh, and Savannah’s androgynous appearance might provide a chance to make that happen.
It’s difficult to imagine a more perfect piece of casting than former Twilight leading lady Stewart as Savannah. Knoop’s take on LeRoy is a taciturn enigma, permanently hidden under some combination of a cap, shades and sweeping blonde hair. This provides the perfect vehicle for Stewart’s wheelhouse – a performance of mannered tics, as if questioning every movement and word of speech. Dern, meanwhile, is having the absolute time of her life as Albert, especially when portraying Albert’s portion of the ruse, performing as LeRoy’s “obnoxious British” agent Speedie.
Stewart and Dern perfectly embody the yin and yang at the heart of the LeRoy character, which was predicated upon Albert’s willingness to lay him bare in interviews and through work, while Knoop kept up the enigma he presented in person. “It’s part of the mystery,” says Albert when Savannah agonises over her awkwardness during an early LeRoy appearance, adding that “people love mystery”. Kelly’s film is less interested in exploring the race to expose LeRoy than it is in probing the effect of being LeRoy on the two halves of his existence.
This is a movie about the toll of fiction and the danger of relying on fakery. A key conflict in the film focuses on Knoop’s budding relationship with actress Eva (Diane Kruger), started on the phone by Albert but made physical and intimate when Knoop takes on the role. Although their conversations are initially a source of tension, Knoop begins to fall in love and feels comfortable being who they are around Eva. Kruger and Stewart have palpable chemistry and Stewart expertly plays Knoop’s thawing personality as they become safer in their new persona.
Wisely, the exposure of LeRoy’s true genesis is rather under-played by the film, which focuses far more on how these characters are affected by the reveal of their ruse. Kelly amps up the glamour of a Cannes Film Festival premiere, but it’s accompanied by Dusty Springfield’s foreboding cover of ‘Windmills of Your Mind’, making it clear that shit is about to hit the fan. Crucially, though, it feels as if all of the characters know that their time is coming to an end. Everyone has twigged that the Emperor has no clothes, but they’re just working out who’s weaving the invisible fabric.
The story behind JT LeRoy is the epitome of stranger than fiction and so it would’ve been easy for Kelly’s film to simply play out a surface level retelling of the story beats. Wisely, though, Kelly spends more time exploring the people behind the LeRoy mythos and the effects of fakery upon them. Late in the day, Dern protests that “this ain’t a hoax, this ain’t fraud” – and it’s believable. Although JT himself never lived, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t real, and this compelling film explores that delightfully while handing Stewart yet another standout performance.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.