VOD film review: JT LeRoy
Ivan Radford | On 10, Jan 2020
Director: Justin Kelly
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern, Jim Sturgess
Watch JT LeRoy online in the UK: Sky Cinema / NOW TV / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play / Sky Store
How many times have you said you’re a fan of a particular movie star? And how often is that because of something you know – or think you know – about their personality or private life? Kristen Stewart, one of the most scrutinised and publicly-exposed movie stars of recent years, thanks to her star-making turns just as social media hit its stride, is all too familiar with the gulf between public and private personas, so it’s perhaps no surprise that she should be drawn to the story of JT LeRoy.
The infamous author is notorious precisely because of who he isn’t: a supposed dienfranchised queer man from the wrong side of the tracks, he was exposed as the creation of Laura Albert (Dern). An author who finds unexpected success with her pseudonym, she winds up doubling down on the deception, conducting fake phone interviews and insisting that JT actually exists. But then, when things get too real – and too profitable – she needs a way to make JT appear in person. And so she recruits Savannah Knoop (Stewart), the girlfriend of her brother, Geoff (Jim Sturgess), to play the part of JT.
Laura Dern is typically excellent as Arthur, an enigmatic and eccentric figure – someone who, not unlike Can You Ever Forgive Me?’s Lee Israel, has to reconcile only being successful when being somebody else. It’s telling that she adopts the persona of “Speedie”, JT’s British publicist (complete with unconvincing accent), when Savannah has to meet anyone – even when being inconspicuous, she can’t be outshone.
But it’s Kristen Stewart who steals the show as Savannah, bringing a wealth of nuance and intrigue to an essentially non-existent character in a bizarre true tale. Putting on a blonde wig and large sunglasses – and anything else LA enough that can disguise her identity – her willingness (at first) to become “Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy” makes for fascinating viewing.
The scenes where Savannah has to pose for a photographer are hugely entertaining sequences that play like alternative versions of Hustle, but that initial buzz is ultimately drowned out by Savannah’s confused journey of identity. Also sacrificing herself to the JT persona, the struggle of working out who she is is magnified by strong supporting turns by Kelvin Harrison Jr. as her romantic interest and Diane Kruger as an actor trying to bring JT’s biography to the big screen – and also becomes a love interest.
Knoop co-wrote the script and, now identifying as gender-non-conforming, is a compelling figure whose eistence as JT LeRoy appears to have contributed to forming her own sense of self. Stewart sinks her teeth into those contradictions and internal conflicts, to the point where the film’s title feels misplaced – you’re pulled so far into her orbit that you want the whole thing to be from her perspective.
That lopsided end result stops JT LeRoy from being as successful as the documentary about the scandal – Author: The JT LeRoy Story – but as a showcase for two performers at the top of their game, it’s a twisting, turning study of public and private identity that is willing to lose itself in the limbo between the two.
JT LeRoy is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of an £11.99 Sky Cinema Month Pass subscription.