JT LeRoy


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

JT Leroy
"The film is at its strongest when it's exploring the nature of manipulation and who, exactly, is manipulating whom." | Photo: Signature Entertainment

Some people say that there are two sides to every story - but the truth is stranger than fiction tale of JT LeRoy suggests there can be a whole lot more than that. An appropriate deduction to reach given that the true story of LeRoy - the purported HIV-positive, androgynous teenage son of a trailer park prostitute who became an overnight sensation for his "autobiographical" book Sarah - was that he was a fictional "avatar" for the much older female Brooklynite Laura Albert, who was in some ways co-created by her sister-in-law Savanah Knoop after she came to "play" him in public. Double quote marks abound when talking about a narrative that includes a raft of celebrities - notably Asia Argento, Winona Ryder and Michael Pitt - being, apparently, taken in by the fiction.

Albert, to a large degree, got to tell her own story in Jeff Feuerzeig's authorised documentary Author: The JT LeRoy Story, while many of those who were emotionally hurt by what they viewed as a "fraud" told their version in Marjorie Sturm's earlier doc The Cult Of JT LeRoy.

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Now we get to see a fictionalised version of part of the tale from the perspective of Knoop (perfectly captured her by Kristen Stewart) - who has both writing and producing credits for the film, which is based on her memoir Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy. Director Justin Kelly (who also co-wrote the screenplay) picks up the story when Leroy is already a media star thanks to Albert (Laura Dern, in another spot of ideal casting) giving countless interviews over the phone in "his voice". When Albert's husband Geoff (Jim Sturgess) introduces her to his sister Savannah, however, Albert sees an opportunity to put some flesh on LeRoy's bones and quickly co-opts her into a scheme that would go on to last for six years.

Having created a shy persona for Leroy already, Knoop's nervousness fit the bill perfectly and the film tracks the path to greater heights that having her as the embodiment of the young writer led to, including a film directed by Argento - who has been transformed into the fictional French character Eva (Diane Kruger) for the purposes of this film.

While Dern's acting might seem OTT as she plays Albert playing Leroy's "Cockney" publicist Speedie, she in fact perfectly captures how Albert was at that time, making it all the more amazing that they got away with it for so long. The film is at its strongest when it's exploring the nature of manipulation and who, exactly, is manipulating whom - particularly as we begin to see Eva's own agenda emerging. But while this and Knoop's relationship with her sister-in-law are interesting to a degree, skewing the film fully to Knoop's perspective means a lot of the psychological nuance of the manic Albert is lost. Knoop is also not given enough time with other characters away from Albert's aura for us to get a sense of what really makes her tick.

The film hints at Albert's childhood - explored considerably more fully in Sturm's film - but there's a sense of treading carefully around all the various "truths", so as not to paint either woman in too dark a light. With such strong and spot on performances at its heart, the story retains its air of fascination but does little more than skate the surface. Those wanting to understand the complexities of the real tale would be well advised to watch Sturm's documentary as a primer first.

Reviewed on: 16 Aug 2019
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Fictionalised retelling of the literary sensation and scandal of JT LeRoy.
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Director: Justin Kelly

Writer: Justin Kelly, Savannah Knoop

Starring: Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern, Jim Sturgess, Diane Kruger, Kelvin Harrison Jr.

Year: 2018

Runtime: 108 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK, Canada, US


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Author: The JT LeRoy Story