JT LeRoy

 

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A new telling of the JT LeRoy story at a time when identity politics are making headlines.

 
JT LeRoy

Jim Sturgess, Kristen Stewart and Laura Dern

 

From time to time, a real-life event already studied in a documentary feature gets taken up afresh to be reworked as a tale told with actors in the hope of securing a wider audience. Quite often, it is the documentary which ironically proves to be the better film, but that is not the case when one compares this new drama from Justin Kelly with the 2016 documentary Author: The JT LeRoy Story. That film suffered from the fact that it was dominated by a key figure in the larger-than-life events, Laura Albert, who came across as less than the most reliable of narrators when an objective investigation would have been the apt approach.

 

That the story should be told again is hardly surprising since what happened was so remarkable. Initially it was just a case of an author, Laura Albert (played here by Laura Dern), writing a book under a pseudonym. But the book, Sarah, published in 2000, a provocative tale of prostitution and abuse, was taken to be an autobiographical work by its supposedly male author, JT LeRoy. However, it was what happened next that was truly extraordinary: Laura persuaded her sister-in-law Savannah Knoop (Kristen Stewart) to take advantage of her androgynous looks to appear in public as JT LeRoy and in this version of the tale this promotion leads on to a European film actress, Eva (Diane Kruger), wanting to play JT’s mother, Sarah, in a film version of the book which she would direct.

 

In time the truth came out and Kelly’s film, based on a memoir that Savannah Knoop published in 2008 and co-written by Kelly and Knoop, more or less stops at that point. That does not mean that it is short on material for on top of everything else Laura Albert had taken on a second identity as Scottie, an Englishwoman who would always appear with Savannah whenever she pretended to be JT Leroy (regarded as a friend who was a kind of quasi-manager, Scottie would usually speak up on behalf of the supposedly shy JT and Laura could thus hope to control what was said).

 

The strength of this new film lies in the two lead performances. Dern in what is in effect a dual role as Laura and Scottie has a ball, while Stewart making good use of an androgynous image more quietly portrays Savannah herself and Savannah as JT LeRoy. Now even more than in the period covered by the film (roughly 2001 to 2004) what is portrayed has resonance given today’s emphasis on gender politics and the concerns of those who want to identify as non-binary. Savannah not only takes on a male identity in her impersonation but has a boyfriend (Kelvin Harrison Jnr giving good support) and then finds herself drawn to the conniving Eva though a shared lesbian encounter. This means that we have here a story of assumed identities in which the question “Are you really who you say you are?” rings out, while at the close Laura points out to a genderqueer audience that one can be out of sync with one’s designated body. However, those who respond strongly to these issues may well wish that Kelly’s film had not been so willing to settle for a tone that plays as something close to enjoyable camp melodrama. As such, it is less effective in its later stages involving Eva, but when Stewart and Dern are screen centre only those demanding a more serious treatment will feel dissatisfied.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern, Diane Kruger, Jim Sturgess, Kelvin Harrison Jnr, James Jagger, Courtney Love, David Lawrence Brown, Alicia Johnston, Eric Plamondon, Craig Haas, Adam Hurtig.

 

Dir Justin Kelly, Pro Cassian Elwes, Gary Pearl, Dave Hansen, Mark Amin, Julie Yorn, Patrick Walmsley, Thor Bradwell and Giri Tharan, Screenplay Justin Kelly and Savannah Knoop, from the latter’s memoir, Ph Bobby Bukowski, Pro Des Jean-André Carrière, Ed Aaron T. Butler, Music Tim Kvasnosky, Costumes Avery Plewes.

 

Black Leather Jacket/Buffalo Gal Pictures/Crosby Street Films/Fortitude International/Sobini Films-Signature Entertainment.
108 mins. UK/Canada/USA. 2018. Rel: 16 August 2019. Cert. 15.