❉ The extraordinary true story of JT LeRoy is a fascinating one, writes Nick Myles.
“Kristen Stewart gives a great performance, understated but compelling throughout and makes an essentially passive role riveting to watch with her quiet intensity”
JT LeRoy is an extraordinary true story about identity and deception in the book and film industries. If it doesn’t always succeed in communicating the emotional reality of its characters, there’s sufficient bizarreness in the source material to sustain interest.
Kristen Stewart plays tomboyish bisexual Savannah “Sav” Knoop. Stewart is ineffably beautiful in spite of a very amateur blue dye job on a short crop, and gives a great performance, understated but compelling throughout. Sav moves to San Francisco and takes up residence on the sofa of her big brother Jeff (Jim Sturgess) and his exuberant partner Laura Albert (Laura Dern). Jess is a musician, and Laura writes lyrics for their band Twist and Scream.
But there’s more to 40something Laura than clinging to a semblance of youthful relevance via the band. She’s also a former phone sex worker who has written a best-selling quasi-memoir about hardship and prostitution under the invented persona of JT LeRoy, a young queer man whose relationship with his mother is supposedly the inspiration for the book.
Laura fancies herself something of an actor after her experience of role-playing fantasies for strangers, and she’s been performing JT in phone interviews to feed the publicity machine and satiate the curiosity her volume of “misery lit” has created. But with demand growing for more access to JT, and a film of the book on the cards, the fictional author needs to become a physical presence. And so androgynous girl Sav is persuaded to impersonate androgynous boy JT…
To keep an eye on JT and speak on his behalf (his persona is incredibly shy and sensitive, lest he/she puts a foot in her/his mouth) Laura creates Speedie, JT’s British manager. Speedie chaperones JT/Sav as the film comes closer to being greenlit, but although she tries to keep JT out of trouble they get separated and he forms a bond with actor/director Eva. As played by Diane Kruger, Eva is not just the stereotypical Hollywood player, and her relationship with JT is touching and unusual. Sav has never been happy pretending to be JT, and struggles even more when trying to conduct an affair as another person.
Stewart makes an essentially passive role riveting to watch with her quiet intensity. Dern, by contrast, plays it almost completely for laughs. Albert is awful: a loud, pretentious, egotistical nightmare, and there are too few moments of stillness in which her vulnerability is given room to breathe. When got up as Speedie, Dern piles on even more ludicrousness – it’s a madcap comic performance that exists in a world of its own, far removed from Stewart’s subtlety.
When the fraud is inevitably uncovered, the film briefly acquires some extra dramatic tension: what will be the consequences of pulling the wool over the eyes of the public and the various celebrities who fell for the scam? But the punch is pulled, and the discovery results in nothing more than some embarrassing headlines. And since the film is an adaptation of Knoop’s book about the affair, it’s ultimately difficult to feel she’s really an injured party.
The story of JT LeRoy is a fascinating one, and the film is worth a look despite my reservations about Dern’s OTT performance.
❉ Signature Entertainment presents ‘JT LeRoy’ in Cinemas and on Digital HD 16th August 2019. Starring Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern, Diane Kruger, Jim Sturgess and Courtney Love.
❉ Nick Myles is a London-based writer and director. His stage plays have been produced at numerous London theatres, and at both the Edinburgh and Brighton Fringe Festivals. He has also contributed to Big Finish’s range of Dark Shadows audio plays. Twitter: Nick Myles