JT LeRoy, Justin Kelly’s new biopic on the creation and exposure of the cult author of the same pen name, opens with an Oscar Wilde epigraph: “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” This sentiment, repurposed from a puckish 1890s play to introduce Kelly’s film on punking 1990s celebrity, immediately sits uneasily in 2019’s bellies. We need straight answers and need them now. The future of civilization seems to depend on digestibility. JT LeRoy is a movie suiting those who, at minimum, can entertain the idea that we might not get what we desperately want.
First invented by the thirty-something San Francisco drifter Laura Albert as a vessel to navigate her own childhood trauma, the gender-bending and drawling JT gave voice to her crises on suicide hotlines, within the pages of therapy journals and eventually in two manuscripts (Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things) that quickly became best-selling novels. The public, thirsting for a new literary underdog and a status symbol, also coveted this elusive HIV-positive 15-year-old who’d turned tricks for truckers alongside his mother in West Virginia. Albert continued the ruse well into the new millennium: first solo over the phone, then with the assistance of her boyfriend’s teen sibling, Savannah Knoop. All it initially took was a blonde wig and a pair of post-mydriatic sunglasses to turn one real andro kid into a fake andro kid’s external analog. This story has endured because the mass suspension of disbelief seems so irrational, and — in turn — unnerving: if so many humans willingly pulled the wool over their own eyes, who is to say it cannot happen again and again and again?
Two documentaries, their releases falling near the 10th anniversary of JT being outed in the press, attempted to make sense of it all. Jeff Feuerzeig’s Author: The JT LeRoy Story (2016) is sympathetic towards Laura, opting to cast any critical gazes on fame’s Andersen-esque idiocy. This is done by using Albert’s secret recordings of calls where she, masquerading as LeRoy, schmoozes with his celebrity pals like Mary Karr and Asia Argento. In The Cult of JT LeRoy (2014), director Marjorie Sturm frames her retelling like a mystery. Her interviews with people who were initially solicited by Laura/JT and thanklessly supported his work aim to underscore the hoax’s collateral damage.
It’s worth noting that a number of JT’s earliest supporters were older men whose opportunism threatened to eclipse Laura’s. “When I read my work to him on the phone, I understood that, as much as he liked my writing, he was also turned on sexually by the perversity and the abuse in the stories,” she told The Paris Review. Savannah makes a similar observation in their 2008 memoir Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy: JT’s HIV status deterred only some of the men who wanted to sleep with him. And it didn’t quell anyone’s want to see him in the flesh. In Kelly’s film, JT’s first public outing at a Los Angeles garden party is defined by grabby hands. Moneyed strangers, having bought access to what is ultimately Savannah’s body, squeeze JT’s arm, whisper in his ear and even remove his glasses to gaze into their piercing baby blues. Among these admirers is Eva (Diane Kruger), an actress closely modeled after Asia Argento, who gradually seduces JT/Savannah into selling her the film rights to The Heart is Deceitful. Kelly’s retelling is careful to not make this a story of users and the used; when opting into celebrity, everyone becomes both.
Co-written by Savannah and based on their memoir, JT LeRoy takes a measured look at the thrills and tolls that they (fluidly played by Kristen Stewart) — and, to a lesser extent Laura (impeccably brought to life by Laura Dern) — experienced by sharing ownership of this coveted fictional character. While much attention has been paid to the human who made him, this is an important first-time look at the one who corporeally held JT for six years.
Savannah first appears as they are moving to San Francisco to live with their brother Geoffrey (Jim Sturgess) and his girlfriend and bandmate, Laura. An unknown hometown and a nameless mother are somewhere in the car’s rear-view window. One can’t quite put a finger on who Savannah is, and maybe that’s the point. When they first became JT, they were still a half-baked teen. The guise became their first strong identity — and thus, a nearly inescapable trap.
As viewers take inventory of Savannah’s handful of qualities — they’re easygoing, impressionable, complexly gendered yet lacking queer theory’s pretensions and fond of Dennis Cooper novels — Savannah is taking inventory of Laura. Not one Laura, but three of her. There is Laura, the rocker who is singing through the car’s tape deck. There is Laura who, behind a closed door, makes a call in a husky voice that Savannah will soon learn belongs to literary wunderkind JT LeRoy. Then, there is Laura in the flesh, gregariously welcoming Savannah into her home. (Later, JT’s manic, Cockney-accented manager Speedie, enters her cast of characters.)
Much care is taken to show Savannah devouring Sarah on their own terms. With full awareness who penned the novel, they are still wooed by its slippery anti-hero’s outsider manifesto. The words are as revelatory as a passage from On the Road or Rubyfruit Jungle: “This is all I am. A bloody glittering heart thumping under a bruised black sky, refusing to let anyone tell me who I’m supposed to be.” “It’s so beautiful,” they tell Laura. “I’ve never read anything like it and it’s really painful, but also fucking magical.” Understanding that JT’s resonant words were born from Laura’s own ache, Savannah eases into a triangulated, trauma-bonded family with both the character and the author.
Here, Dern and Stewart (who both also starred in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women) are strongest when they alone comprise a scene, and the same applies to the narrative. In those intimate moments, Laura’s motives for hiding and Savannah’s motives for taking on this role become crystal: one wishes to escape; the other, explore. Alone in a jalopy without air conditioning, the two roam between topics ranging from current partners to sex with women to JT’s origins. “It felt so good to not have to be in this body. To be as far away from it as possible,” Laura muses, her hardscrabble past playing off of her young ally’s green hankerings. “I get that,” Savannah empaths. Laura is likeable here, perhaps more than she is in real life.
Scenes like this, more suited to JT LeRoy’s modest budget than later jaunts through Ava’s Tennessee film set or a drawn-out and inadequately edited sequence at the Cannes Film Festival, tell viewers as much about the hoax’s intricate origins as they do queerness. Both slide into JT’s third sex. In one scene, Savannah coils their chest in an ACE Elastic Bandage while listening to Laura give an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross. It is deliberately unclear whether the binding process is for them, or for the character.
Yet this relationship triangle can be never be anything but scalene. The brain, the brainchild and the body quickly become imbalanced and threaten collapse, perhaps more times than viewer attention can withstand. Laura grows increasingly frustrated with the attention the guised Savannah receives from her own fans. One moment, she lauds their performance; the next, she tells them their labor is nothing without her creation. Savannah increasingly confuses the lines between reality and fiction as they fall in love with Ava and into anger with Laura, who continues to virtually correspond with Ava as JT. Savannah’s heartbreak could be likened to an episode of Catfish where there are two swimmers for the price of one. It also bears similarity to the devastation of queer romances where the object of affection isn’t similarly inclined. Savannah experiences a grieving period for the body they will never have; the person they will never be. Meanwhile, the straw-haired avatar finally begins to have his veracity questioned in the press.
To see Kristen Stewart portray Savannah Knoop portraying JT is certainly meta. It’s mind-boggling to witness an improvised performance be polished for the screen per the guidelines of the original performer, line for line. As with Savannah and JT, it’s challenging to figure out where Kristen and Savannah, who met nearly a decade ago, end and begin. This element permeates the film.
JT LeRoy is rife with alter-egos, witnesses to the original events and individuals eager to play in the gray area between truth and fact. Justin Kelly, best known for his other work on queer shape-shifters, I Am Michael, is a protégé of Gus Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho, Milk), who was so moved by JT’s writing that they co-authored the screenplay for Elephant together. Hole frontwoman Courtney Love, a JT fan who once called him “an iconoclast,” appears in the film as a Hollywood producer eager to buy what he’s selling (her band’s song, “Celebrity Skin,” opens the film’s closing credits). Early in the first act, Kristen Stewart’s then-covert girlfriend Stella Maxwell appears at a party bustling with queers who think they’re artists and artists who think they’re queers. Later on, Savannah Knoop themself appears, dancing in a frame with her former likeness.
Kelly might be working within a familiar and inflexible biopic framework that doesn’t afford characters much breathing room (the reckless omission of JT’s HIV status warrants the wrist-slap that his fictitious diagnosis did in real life), but he’s still found clever ways to tamper with linearity.
The Oscar Wilde epigraph that opens JT Leroy comes from The Importance of Being Earnest, another tale of two people who escape, enhance and embroil their lives by creating alter egos that inevitably come crashing down. “Modern life would be very tedious if it were either,” it continues. “And modern literature a complete impossibility!” The same goes for modern cinema.
Sarah Fonseca (@helenafleabody) is a film writer living in New York City. She serves on the screening committee of NewFest. Sarah’s reviews and essays have appeared in cléo: a journal of film and feminism, IndieWire, The Los Angeles Review of Books and the Museum of the Moving Image’s ReverseShot. She enjoys a balanced breakfast of femme-led dramas, experimental queer cinemas and blockbuster action flicks.