JT LeRoy may not exist, but he’s still one of the most fascinating characters to ever rock the literary world. As one of the many readers who fell for LeRoy’s “authentic voice” in every “autobiographical” book – now known to have been written by Laura Albert – Justin Kelly’s J.T. LeRoy has been on my radar since images first surfaced of Kristen Stewart and Laura Dern donning those outrageous wigs and dark sunglasses. Based on Savannah Knoop’s memoir, Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy, this biopic is less about the rise and fall of JT LeRoy and more about the six years Knoop (played by Stewart) spent bolstering Albert’s (played by Dern) lie by becoming the face of her fictional persona. Featuring engaging performances from both accomplished actresses, the narrative regrettably limits their characters, never breaking through the surface long enough to reach the heart of the matter or establish the stakes.
Strangely, this film assumes audiences are already familiar with certain details surrounding the scandal, bypassing Laura Albert’s motivations for creating JT entirely to bring Savannah Knoop’s experience impersonating him to the foreground. Sure, it’s all a little meta when you consider that Albert chose to play the supporting role to her own creation, but no matter how you tell the tale, without Laura, JT LeRoy is just a façade. After Albert/LeRoy’s novel Sarah became a best-seller, Albert began conducting interviews as her “avatar” via phone and email. Initially avoiding the public eye due to JT’s chronic shyness, she cultivated relationships with various writers and celebrities over the phone, recruiting them to come to events and read on the author’s behalf. So, before the world had ever laid eyes on JT LeRoy, Albert had earned him an impressive list of followers: Winona Ryder, Debbie Harry, Lou Reed, Tom Waits, Gus Van Sant, Carrie Fisher, Shirley Manson, and Courtney Love (who has a cameo in the film). But obtaining this level of celebrity meant she couldn’t keep her boy wonder hidden forever.
Enter Savannah Knoop, the half-sister of Albert’s boyfriend Geoff (Jim Sturgess), who arrives in San Francisco only to be persuaded by Albert into portraying the traumatized it boy. But Savannah’s interactions as JT are strained and awkward, to say the least, mostly because Albert refuses to share any intel about the conversations she has with people as JT. Stammering through photoshoots and press conferences in JT’s signature blonde wig and sunglasses, Savannah enjoys the performance aspect and even develops a romantic relationship as JT with filmmaker Eva Avalon (Diane Kruger playing a fictional version of Asia Argento). Meanwhile, Dern sidesteps into the insufferable persona of Speedie, another role Albert created for herself to always be present as JT’s manager/handler. Given that many of Albert’s moments as JT are depicted in whispers from another room or as manic montages of her desperately trying to keep her lie afloat, Dern isn’t given a lot of room to humanize her actions. Instead, her only honest moments are limited to dialogue, telling instead of showing us how she arrived at this duplicitous stage of her life.
Stewart’s performance, on the other hand, feels authentic and somewhat personal. She embodies both the skittish and introverted sides of LeRoy, while also channeling Savannah’s unassuming yet adventurous spirit. While the film falls short in connecting Savannah’s personal struggle with identity and sexuality to the liberating act of dressing up as JT, what’s most disappointing is that any affection between Savannah and Laura, which must have been a driving force behind the charade, is sacrificed in favor of playing dress up. Considering the many complex themes behind Albert’s reasons for creating JT LeRoy and the freedom impersonating him brought to Savannah’s life, it’s a shame the film overlooks those areas, opting to dress up the lie as all fun and games instead of exploring the therapeutic power of art and the consequences of hiding your true identity.
In retrospect, it’s hard to believe anyone could have ever thought these two conflicting personalities were the same person. While those familiar with the scandal are likely to enjoy the film's style even without the substance, the uninitiated are sure to walk away with a lot of questions. For those looking for a more in depth account of both sides of the story, I’d recommend the documentaries Author: The JT LeRoy Story and The Cult of JT LeRoy. Despite great performances, J.T. LeRoy only brushes the surface of this wild tale, glossing over the consequences the hoax had not only on those who created it, but on the many lives that were touched by this boy who never existed.