J.T. LeRoy

What tangled webs

In the 1990s, a young writer named Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy became something of a sensation in literary circles for his pithy, autobiographical novels (Sarah, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things) about the abuse and trauma the lad suffered while growing up in the South. JT was highly reclusive, doing interviews only by phone, which added to his stylishly mysterious aura. Then, in 1991, he began appearing briefly in public for photo ops and press conferences.

Turns out it was all a made-up hoax; the stories were written by Laura Albert (Laura Dern), a reclusive San Francisco musician and author, who had cajoled her androgynous sister-in-law Savannah Knoop (Kristen Stewart) into posing as JT while she herself took on the public role as his madcap British agent/handler, “Speedy,” in a gothic raspberry wig. It all worked really well, for six years, in fact. Until it didn’t.

What this movie has going for it are a memorably manic performance by Dern and a superbly nuanced one by Stewart. Diane Kruger also shines as a character loosely based on the monumentally screwed-over Asia Argento, who made a movie out of one of JT’s books.

But as it’s adapted from Knoop’s memoir (who also co-write the screenplay with director Justin Kelly, a Gus Van Sant protégé) it’s only telling one side of the story. And it falls well short of the gender identity message it’s aiming for.

Bottom line, I’m uncertain why this was made at all, especially in light of 2016’s far more comprehensive documentary Author: The JT LeRoy Story (streaming on Amazon) featuring, as it were, the original cast.  And for a movie about tweaking the literary establishment, it should have been a lot more fun.

(108 min)