REVIEW: JT LeRoy [2019]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 108 minutes
    Release Date: April 26th, 2019 (USA)
    Studio: Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
    Director(s): Justin Kelly
    Writer(s): Justin Kelly & Savannah Knoop / Savannah Knoop (memoir Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy)

I wouldn’t even exist without her.

It really is a wild story. Laura Albert, in need of expressing her pain outside of her own identity, creates a fictional version of herself to write three novels as exorcism under “his” name. Who knows if she anticipated the type of acclaim they and “he” would receive, but Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy necessitated her performing multiple characters out of her San Francisco apartment with fake accents to speak with journalists, fans, and artists over the phone in order to keep the charade alive. Only when her boyfriend Geoffrey Knoop invited his sister Savannah over upon their (Savannah is non-binary) move to the Bay Area did Laura see a body that could do justice to “his” voice. For six years they shared “him” before the façade came crashing down.

While Jeff Feuerzeig‘s documentary Author: The JT LeRoy Story sheds light on the whole ordeal from an objective stance that’s probably the only true way to understand the ins and outs of “JT’s” genesis, Savannah wrote a memoir to tell the personal experience with their own version of dysphoria removed from Laura’s. The result might take the name JT LeRoy, but Justin Kelly‘s film is really the Savannah Knoop (who co-wrote) story when all is said and done. It focuses upon their trajectory embodying the character and how “he” influenced their decisions, romances, and identity. Is their part the more interesting angle? Not really considering it was Laura’s struggles that birthed the character in the first place. But don’t let this truth diminish what Savannah endured.

Sav (Kristen Stewart) arrives as the shy, artistically inclined sister of Geoff (Jim Sturgess) before finding themself taken under Laura’s (Laura Dern) enthusiastically over-bearing wing. They work as a waitress, meet Sean (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), and begin to put a life together when the proposition of posing for a photo under wig and sunglasses is made. Why not? Laura had already created an image of her “JT” via a thrift store photograph—what harm could reenacting that unnamed person do? Being a reclusive celebrity who just had the first “new” image taken of him since his debut novel Sarah was published, however, the media floodgates opened. Suddenly Laura was cajoling Sav into appearances while posing as “his” handler/friend “Speedie.” A face had been sanctioned and the opportunities increased.

And while the strain this ruse takes on Laura and Geoff’s relationship with promises of promoting his band also placing him in the middle of fact and fiction is obviously visible, Sav takes center stage as the bisexual woman who rejects their curves during the day and ultimately becomes a man at night. How does this duality impact their dynamic with Sean? How does the infatuation ignited by Laura over the phone with a well-known Parisian celebrity (Diane Kruger‘s Eva, a stand-in for Asia Argento, who would cinematically adapt “JT’s” book The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things) impact Sav’s feelings and desires? How much of the “JT” they put on display is the real Savannah in disguise rather than a fiction devoid of honest agency?

These are the questions the film seeks to answer by following Sav’s descent into the role like an addict craving an adrenaline rush high. We watch as they learn to embrace what initially brought trepidation before losing themself in the allure brought on by the fame and the escape from a life they might not have been fully happy with living. Alongside this is Laura’s realization that her work as “JT” is being taken away from her by a public that suddenly had a figure with which to engage and laud. By literally putting someone between herself and her work, she gradually becomes the expendable one despite the “real JT” being very much alive inside her. The complexities within these women’s parallel and intertwined journeys cannot be undersold.

Unfortunately the film can’t quite handle both as effectively as you’d hope. Laura is by far the most captivating of the pair, but she’s constantly playing second fiddle by way of whose perspective tells their joint story. Sav is more emotionally and psychologically raw and yet they’re often presented as playing a role inside a wild scene of subterfuge rather than a fractured version of themself. The latter is where the real intrigue comes in, but its melancholic effect is only truly visible when Sav is alone with Eva or Sean and thus able to confront the disparity between identities. When Sav and Laura are together we generally only catch the latter’s manipulations to manufacture a sense of disgust rather than the sympathy she does deserve in hindsight.

The film doesn’t necessarily pit them against each other, but that’s inevitably what happens when the lens is so purposefully skewed in one direction. Laura is the “villain” in Sav’s story by virtue of being the one who pushes them into scenarios they aren’t comfortable with and encouraging behavior that blurs the line between reality and lie despite knowing the consequences go much deeper than merely being exposed. A movie about JT LeRoy “himself” would therefore be much different because we’d receive more of Sav’s yearning to play the part to offset those tough moments of self-reflection and self-damage in the process. Sav does become more victim than accomplice in this telling—for better or worse. As such, it does feel like we’re only receiving half the story.

Thankfully that half is still absolutely fascinating. Let’s be honest: any tale as intricately sprawling in its deceptions as this one could have ten films made without anyone getting bored. Because of the controversy surrounding it, though, you do have to question when one of the principle players is given creative control. There will always be a cloud of uncertainty overhead as we wonder if they’ve spun things their way regardless of whether that’s actually the case. So maybe treat this version as a companion piece to the documentary, one that places us in the moment to experience it all. Sometimes the distance talking head interviews provide can’t reach the empathetic heights of watching emotions unfold. Stewart and Dern excel at the latter to ensure their characters’ humanity remains intact.

[1] (L-R) Laura Dern as Laura Albert and Kristen Stewart as Savannah Knoop in the film J.T. LEROY. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures Content Group.
[2] (L-R) Laura Dern as Laura Albert and Kristen Stewart as Savannah Knoop in the film J.T. LEROY. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures Content Group.
[3] (L-R) Laura Dern as Laura Albert and Kristen Stewart as Savannah Knoop in the film J.T. LEROY. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures Content Group.

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