Throughout the late ’90s and early ’00s, JT LeRoy was a New York Times best-selling author who wrote semi-autobiographical novels based on his upbringing as the neglected son of a prostitute mother, and captured the public’s imagination by his commitment to mystery, never ever making public appearances and only communicating with the outside world via telephone. In reality, JT LeRoy never existed. He was a fictional persona made up by then-struggling writer Laura Albert as a way to allow her to communicate about and work through her abusive past and gender dysphoria, having spent the ’90s often calling up suicide hotlines and speaking through different characters, later physically embodied in public by Albert’s then-sister-in-law and aspiring fashion designer Savannah Knoop, with Albert continuing the façade through phone interviews. By early 2006, the persona had been exposed, and a mess of lawsuits, public shaming and ostracisation followed, as well as retroactive realisations that Albert had in a way been prescient about our modern online culture of alternating personas as ways to work through our emotional trauma and gender dysphoria.
READ MORE: Summer Movie Guide: Part 4 – August 2019
That’s how the story went in reality, or at least as well as we can know it since both Knoop and Albert are known for self-aggrandisement and it’s hard to find a firm truth in events based around carefully-maintained false identities. With that said, it seems that the interpretation of events put forth by JT LeRoy, the latest film from King Cobra’s Justin Kelly, is not aiming to get at the truth. In JT LeRoy, Laura Albert (Laura Dern) is an egomaniacal borderline-sociopath and potential-pathological liar who gladly and frequently takes full advantage of anyone and everyone that could possibly further her career in any way shape or form, whilst Savannah Knoop (Kristen Stewart) is a wide-eyed fresh-faced naïf who’s brand new to the big city of San Francisco and led astray by her instantly-scheming sister-in-law who would never give her proper credit and there was a cute girl – film director Eva (Diane Kruger) who wants to adapt LeRoy’s breakthrough novel Sarah, all definitely a non-legally-threatening stand-in for Asia Argento and her adaptation of follow-up novel The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things – so it wasn’t totally her fault you understand.
Even viewers who choose to vacate their seats before the end credits roll will be able to tell that the screenplay comes co-written by Knoop and is based on her 2008 tell-all Girl Boy Girl. Rather than, with the benefit of a decade between the exposure of the persona and filming of this movie, stepping back and exploring the power of persona in order to provide an outlet for dealing with personal trauma, or the literary world’s obsession over image and authenticity and the resultant backlash when it turns out things aren’t being kept 100 – the events leading up to LeRoy’s exposure occurred about the same time as James Frey’s alleged memoir A Million Little Pieces was also exposed as faked, although the LeRoy persona always stressed that their books were works of fiction – and whether any of that matters when so many people connect so powerfully to the material regardless, Knoop and Kelly go for a simplistic hit-job. Albert as the vampy predatory queen wilfully taking out her shit on others, Knoop as the awkward introvert who just gets used and dressed up by everyone around her because she’s too passive to know better; a fact that, in case the on-the-nose dialogue didn’t already spell it out enough, Avery Plewes’ costume design really hammers home when Knoop’s baggy unfashionable clothing has been contrasted with Albert’s swanning around in a gothic black dress and eyeliner fit for a woman half her age about 40 times.
I, of course, could be wrong in my assessment of the situation and Knoop’s account of events was (alterations likely to avoid lawsuits aside) how it all went down psychologically. Fair enough if so, but whilst that may dispel the spectre of “hit-job” hanging over the picture it won’t change how dramatically crippling and often boring it makes the movie. In fact, the film as a whole often actively dodges anything approaching an interesting or unique take on the material. Rarely do we get an insight into how Albert’s writing as LeRoy manages to touch people, being as our perspective is entirely from that of Knoop, and the queer/non-binary subtext of the persona and Knoop’s time with Eva – which not surprisingly is also the only time that the movie really comes alive, Stewart and Kruger having good understated chemistry and Kelly bringing some of the deceitful heat that buoyed King Cobra to his otherwise staid magazine-ready direction – ends up having its knees cut out when the eventual expected reveal comes about. Instead, when it’s not acting as character assassination or dry Wikipedia dramatisation, JT LeRoy becomes a done-to-death exploration about how the desire for fame and celebrity, and stay with me on this, is bad and how the performance industries themselves, and stay with me on this, are also bad.
Stewart does what she can with a character who is otherwise not particularly well-sketched despite being the protagonist, all the better to keep Knoop’s hands as clean as possible, whilst Dern is at least having fun getting to alternate between a more sedate respectable version of Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest and a relentlessly hammy mockney accent when Albert pretends to be Speedy, LeRoy’s British manager who follows him everywhere in public (an act to ensure Knoop says the right things and lets Albert vicariously live out the fame and attention the film’s characterisation of her desperately craves). And as a highly-sceptical primer on the subject, it is a decent enough watch. But anyone looking for deeper resonance or understanding about this whole mess, something to make the telling of this story worth anyone’s time, is going to come away disappointed. This is more one-sided airing of dirty laundry than resonant meaningful exploration of the subject. A watchable, glossily-made, decently-acted airing of dirty laundry, but an airing of dirty laundry nonetheless.
JT LeRoy will be released in cinemas and on digital from Friday the 16th August.