JT Leroy: Fact-Based Switched-Identity Story Weirdly Shallow and Superficial

By Liam Lacey

Rating: B-

If you want to dramatize a real-life celebrity fraud tale, you can’t settle for the superficial. Either go for psychological truth or camp it up to the level of the superduperficial. There’s not much of either quality in JT Leroy, a film that offers colourful performances by Laura Dern and Kristen Stewart but fails to find any urgency in retelling the tale of an early 2000s literary fraud.

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Dern, in a performance that recalls several of her other appealing monsters (Enlightened, Big Little Lies, Citizen Ruth), stars as the manic, emotionally needy literary huckster Laura Albert, who created the persona of JT “Jeremiah Terminator" LeRoy, the purported teenaged author of three books of semi-autobiographical fiction based on his life of poverty, drugs, and sexual abuse.

Stewart, also true to type, plays Albert’s fidgety androgynous sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop, who Albert convinces to dress up in a wig and dark glasses and pretend to be the painfully introverted JT Leroy.

The bizarrely successful ruse, which continued for a half-dozen years, has already been the subject of two documentaries. This version is co-written by director Justin Kelly and Knoop, based on the latter’s memoir about her part in the scandal.

The film begins when 25-year-old Savannah comes to San Francisco to visit her musician brother Geoff (Jim Sturgess). She is immediately love-bombed by Geoff’s speed-talking wife and band-mate, Laura, who tells Savannah that she finds her beautiful and brilliantly creative. Laura is already the author of a book, supposedly written by the teenaged male author. In no time, she has convinced Savannah to impersonate the supposed author, an awkwardly shy former street hustler turned literary star, JT Leroy.

The ruse works spectacularly. Soon JT Leroy is on magazine covers and championed by celebrities like Madonna and Courtney Love (who does a meta turn here as a Hollywood producer). Somehow, journalists and acquaintances overlook the difference between JT’s barely coherent personal presence and LeRoy’s effusive phone interviews, conducted by Albert in a honey-dripping Southern accent. Whether JT was a teenaged boy or a male-born trans-woman who prefers the pronoun “he” remains vague.

In an effort to guide Savannah’s public appearances, Albert casts herself the part of JT’s manager “Speedie,” a rowdy Englishwoman in a long red wig. Speedie manages to irritate interviewers by answering questions directed to JT, and resents how she is regularly treated like a hanger-on and a nobody. Jealousy, possibly erotic, ensues.

Those familiar with the JT LeRoy saga will recognize the character played by Diane Kruger — a tempestuous, director-actress named Eva — is based on the real-life Asia Argento, who directed the 2004 feature The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. Here, she is depicted as sleeping with Leroy, essentially to get the rights to the book. (The film is vaguer than Kroop’s book about the sexual details). A minor subplot follows Savannah’s more conventional relationship with a young man named Sean (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) who is emotionally burned when he discovers Savannah’s double life.

As the movie shows, when the fraud was finally exposed, Albert’s defense emphasized her own victimhood, insisting that JT Leroy was an “avatar,” and an extension of versions of herself she created while calling suicide hotlines or roles she took on as a phone-sex worker. The viewer is left to identify with Savannah, left sadder but not much wiser, in a switched-identity story that remains no more than wig-and-sunglasses deep.

JT Leroy. Directed by Justin Kelly. Written by Justin Kelly and Savannah Knoop. Starring Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart, and Diane Kruger. Opens May 3 in Toronto, Montreal, and Edmonton; May 17 in Vancouver; June 28 in Ottawa, with other cities to be announced soon.