JT LeRoy review: This literary hoax drama proves that truth is sometimes far more interesting than fiction

Despite Kristen Stewart and Laura Dern’s best efforts, this dramatisation of a sensational 21st century scandal fails to take off

Adam White
Thursday 15 August 2019 12:23 BST
Kristen Stewart and Laura Dern in the trailer for JT LeRoy

Dir: Justin Kelly. Starring: Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern, Jim Sturgess, Diane Kruger, Kelvin Harrison Jr and Courtney Love. 15, 106 mins

In 2000, a HIV-positive San Francisco teenager named Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy became an overnight literary sensation. His fictionalised memoirs, Sarah and The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, told sordid and moving tales of street hustling, gender play and the Bible Belt, all infused with magical realism and heady surreality. After predominantly communicating with his publishers and his famous admirers over the phone, he began to appear in public dressed in wigs and sunglasses, if largely non-communicative and always accompanied by his flamboyant manager, an entrepreneurial Englishwoman known as Speedie.

In 2005, the truth emerged. “JT LeRoy” was in fact the creation of a forty-something New Yorker named Laura Albert, whose life-long propensity to flee into fantasy worlds and fictional personas had manifested in her writing, “JT” an avatar or conduit for her own experiences of trauma and mental illness. She was also Speedie all along, giving voice to “JT” over the phone, but with the public face of “JT” played by Laura’s sister-in-law Savannah Knoop.

The long and twisty tale was previously recounted in Author: The JT LeRoy Story, a spectacular documentary film made with Albert’s participation and released in 2016. Now here, somewhat inevitability, is a dramatised account starring Kristen Stewart and Laura Dern as Savannah and Laura, respectively. Yet despite the presence of two of our very best female actors, the story has lost much of its power and intrigue during the transition.

Adapted from Knoop’s memoir Girl Boy Girl, JT LeRoy is angled from the one character intimately involved in the hoax who has. by and large, remained an elusive figure since the truth was exposed. Knoop is a compelling individual on their own, a non-binary writer with appropriately complex feelings about Albert’s deceit and the odd freedoms the JT guise provided them. But they are also, as evidenced by how quickly the film grinds to a screeching halt whenever it focuses entirely on them, far and away the least interesting part of the story. Whether they’re lounging in bed with their on-again/off-again boyfriend (Kelvin Harrison Jr), or enjoying an ambiguous dalliance with Ava (Diane Kruger), a thinly veiled version of actor and filmmaker Asia Argento, director of the 2004 adaptation of The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, they remain a slightly blank presence hitching a ride on a whirlwind they have no real agency in.

Stewart, endlessly transfixing as she is, makes for a striking Savannah. But she is also an actor with a tendency to fade into the background unless the film surrounding her matches her slightly ethereal spirit. JT LeRoy, unfortunately, is a number of different films all at once – as much an introspective reflection on gender identity as it is a glitzy reenactment of a literary scandal and a broad caper movie. While Stewart seems happier in the former, Dern, complete with deliberately wonky accent when in the guise of Speedie, is very much existing in the latter. She’s deliciously campy as Laura, barrelling into industry parties and the Cannes Film Festival like a one-woman stampede entirely lacking in grace or self-awareness, but is also so big that everything around her can’t help but deflate in her presence.

The JT LeRoy story is one of many rotating parts, and a thrilling time capsule of gender, creativity and celebrity at the turn of the Millennium. All of that was skilfully united in Author by Albert’s consistent narration and the use of archival footage and illicitly recorded phone conversations between Albert-as-JT and “his” various admirers, but feels scattered here. It’s also oddly muted considering the scale of “JT”’s success and the many famous faces, notably “cool” glitterati figures such as Lou Reed, Winona Ryder and Michael Stipe, left dazzled by the apparent genius of an androgynous teenager from the wrong side of the tracks.

And nothing better exemplifies JT LeRoy’s disappointing malaise than the presence of Courtney Love. She was one of the many stars enraptured by the JT LeRoy mythos at the time of “his” initial fame, rapidly developing a friendship with “JT” in person and Laura-as-JT over the phone. And she pops up in JT LeRoy, too, only not playing herself but rather an anonymous film producer eager to turn The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things into a movie. She’s a little weirded out by Speedie, says a few uninteresting lines, and vanishes soon after. In Author: The JT LeRoy Story, we hear numerous gushing snippets from her phone calls to Albert, all secretly recorded at the time, including one in which she stops mid-flow, apologises and proceeds to hoover up a mountain of cocaine before returning to her train of thought. It is a glorious and incredibly funny voice cameo, and just one standout moment in a documentary stocked with them. The way JT LeRoy uses Love in comparison tells you everything about which film is better worth your time.

JT LeRoy is released in UK cinemas and on-demand on 16 August

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in