Part Grift. Part Performance Art. All let down – JT LeRoy (Film Review)


Sometimes you get a film that hits every note. It doesn’t even have to be a high brow piece. Just one that understands itself. It knows what it can do and how it can. It seizes every chance to make its mark.
Then you get films like JT LeRoy (2019) whose series of missed opportunities make you slightly depressed.

Based on a true story, the film follows the account of a writer’s persona. Gender fluid artist Savannah Knoop (Kirsten Stewart) moves to San Francisco with her brother Geoffrey (Jim Sturgess) and his writer wife Laura Albert (Laura Dern). Laura has written a best seller, ‘Sarah’ under the name of JT Leroy, but Leroy is more than just her nom de plume. He is a full-blown persona, a troubled, abused but profoundly brilliant 18-year-old boy from West Virginia. Through email and telephone, Laura can impersonate JT while publicly playing the role of Speedy, JT’s English agent. When people start questioning JT’s existence, she turns to Savannah, asking if they will play JT in public. Okay at first, things only take a left when French actress Eva (Diane Kruger) becomes obsessed with JT and turning their novel into a film when things fall apart.

There is a lot of missed potential in this film. It could have examined the nature of identity and persona. Laura created the persona of JT when she phoned suicide hotlines as she was more comfortable pretending to be a boy while discussing abuse. She created personas while working as a phone sex operator. She describes playing Speedy as liberating while it’s clear her bohemian attitude is itself a persona hiding her real identity, but this isn’t explored. It’s just left as background. What little is brought up is told, not shown. Savannah, meanwhile, is forced to hide their own identity for the sake of Laura’s grift. But this, like Laura’s, is left in the background. We could have had an exploration of Judith Butler’s theory of gender and cultural performance, but it all gets pushed to the side for something little more than a rise and fall story.

Despite this, though, Dern and Stewart are solid in their roles. It’s just that they can’t take them anywhere. In spite of being two people inhabiting a single persona, there is not the level of conflict this should have.  Even as a biography of a writer and an artist, we get very little writing and very little art.

That said it’s not a bad movie. It’s just not great. Bland. So much could have been done. More to explore the story of why Laure created JT, or how Savannah kept hold of their own identity while those around them were trying to get them to accept another’s persona. As it is, it’s just a mildly entertaining film that falls flat too many times.

Dir: Justin Kelly
Scr: Justin Kelly, Savannah Knoop
Cast: Kirsten Stewart, Jim Sturgess, Laura Dern, Diane Kruger
Prd: Cassian Elwes
DOP: Bobby Bukowski
Music: Tim Kvasnosky
Country: USA
Runtime: 108 minutes

JT LeRoy in Cinemas and Digital from 16th August