This review was originally published as part of our BFI Flare coverage on 05/04/2019.
There’s no denying that the scandal and secrecy of writer JT LeRoy make for a fascinating story. In this retelling, it also makes for a fascinatingly terrible film.
Flamboyant costumes, questionable casting and a genuinely shocking performance from Laura Dern render the central impersonation premise completely unbelievable – despite its basis on real events. K-Stew hasn’t donned wigs this bad since Twilight, and Laura Dern is a manic mess. As Laura, the real writer who penned LeRoy’s novels, she’s jittery and annoying. These qualities are pushed to caricature and beyond when she assumes the persona of Speedy – JT’s multi-accented agent.
JT LeRoy tries and struggles to overcome these distracting shortcomings. It’s always compelling; at first simply for its themes and subject matter but then increasingly, as the screenplay’s rich opportunities are squandered, in a can’t-look-away car crash sense.
It’s not all bad. There are flashes of Dern’s usual genius in the quieter, sadder moments, especially as Savannah (Stewart) tries to extricate herself from embodying the non-existent JT. Stewart is an alternatingly camp and androgynous joy, but the film never makes the best out of her, or the Shakespearean plot of assumed identities and gender play.
Given that the real life Savannah has a co-writer credit, it’s unsurprising that she’s the more nuanced and interesting character. The film’s lack of interest in Laura’s past, motivations or psychology is yet another stumbling block. In terms of pace, too, JT LeRoy stumbles and lurches through its runtime. The literary world’s baffling belief in Savannah’s LeRoy is too abruptly overturned by fast-mounting suspicion.
JT LeRoy is always mere inches away from being so much better, making its failures all the more disappointing. It achieves nowhere near the psychological depth or emotional gravitas of this year’s other queer literary fraud movie, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
CAST: Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern, Diane Kruger, Jim Sturgess
DIRECTOR: Justin Kelly
WRITERS: Justin Kelly, Savannah Knoop (screenplay; based on Knoop’s memoir)
SYNOPSIS: A young woman named Savannah Knoop spends six years pretending to be the celebrated author JT LeRoy, the made-up literary persona of her sister-in-law.