Review: J.T. Leroy

I have a special fondness for the story of J.T. Leroy, a colorful and bizarre hoax that managed to fool not only readers, but editors, authors and Hollywood stars. Specifically, the fact that J.T. Leroy – a fragile junkie-child-prostitute-turned-bestselling-writer – did not exist, but was the concoction of a woman who liked to pretend to be a young boy on suicide hotlines.

With a story that weird and fascinating, it isn’t a surprise that eventually Hollywood decided to take a stab at chronicling it. “J.T. Leroy” – based on the memoir of Savannah Knoop, who “played” the titular personage – is a serviceable retelling of the highlights of Knoop’s tenure as J.T. Leroy, but doesn’t really stray outside its comfort zone by really embracing the weirdness of the tale.

Savannah Knoop (Kristen Stewart) moves to San Francisco to be near her brother Geoff, a struggling musician, and his longtime girlfriend Laura (Laura Dern). Laura introduces Savannah to the books of J.T. Leroy, who also happens to be her alter ego, and eventually convinces Savannah to pretend to be Leroy – first in an interview photo, then a whole shoot, and finally on trips to France and movie sets.

Savannah soon finds herself wrapped up in Leroy’s glamorous life, including a romance with a beautiful French actress (Diane Kruger) who wants to adapt one of Leroy’s books into a film. But her lifestyle of lies begins to bleed into her real one, leaving her trying to find out what is real in her double-life – until everything unexpectedly falls apart when a journalist reveals the cold, hard truth about J.T. Leroy.

As you’d expect from a Hollywood chronicle of real-life events over several years, “J.T. Leroy” is a fairly surface-level skim of what happened during Savannah Knoop’s double life. Various things are streamlined out (Laura and Geoff’s son, the band Thistle) or changed (Asia Argento is made into a fictional French actress), and some stuff is added for dramatic effect, but the overall tale is a fairly good representation of the events of J.T. Leroy’s reign and downfall. Effectively, it’s a cliffs-notes version of the story.

And it’s presented in a… serviceable way. Justin Kelly’s directorial style is perfectly adequate, but doesn’t really embrace the weirdness of the tale. But his scriptwriting feels hesitant and unwilling to fully tackle any of the stuff that is brought up – for instance, it’s suggested by Savannah’s boyfriend that being J.T. Leroy is like a drug to her… but the parallel is effectively dropped after that scene.

And that problem extends to analyzing Laura’s motivations for writing as J.T. Leroy, which he seems to be trying really, really hard to justify. For instance, one scene slaps you in the face with the suggestion that Laura only pretended to be a sexually-abused teen prostitute because she was oppressed by evil sexist men… which not only is wholly made up, as far as I can tell, but which is directly contradicted by a whole monologue at the film’s conclusion. It feels intellectually dishonest, and rather desperate to justify what is, essentially, lying.

Kristen Stewart is a pretty good choice for an awkward, sexually-ambiguous young woman, although it’s a little difficult to tell how much of that was intended. Laura Dern is the real star here as Laura Albert – a cracking bonfire of energy and embroidered realities, who is thrilled to be rubbing elbows with the famous and artistic because of her books, but who is also relegated to the role of “annoying hanger-on” because of her secret.

“J.T. Leroy” is a good introduction to the tale of J.T. Leroy for newcomers, but be warned that it’s a deeply Hollywoodized version of the tale, with much of the uniqueness of the story sanded off. Better to stick with the documentaries.

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