New from Al and Linda Lerner on Movies and Shakers: JT Leroy

Exceptional acting helps this film about a made-up, gender-bending, genius author that never existed, but, unfortunately, this film leaves no lasting impression. Laura Dern is a standout as the made up JT (Jeremiah Terminator) Leroy, a Tennessee teen who wrote a memoir that caught fire in the book-world. His troubled childhood and wise-beyond-his years writing was a super sensation.

New, explosive revelations about celebrity scandals disappear almost as fast as they crawl across TV news screens which is true of the literary scandal of JT Leroy that actually occurred in the early 2000’s. 

San Francisco writer, Laura Albert, (Laura Dern), authored the book but searched and chose her musician boyfriend’s (Jim Sturgess) sister, Savannah Knoop (Kristen Stewart) to be the embodiment of this JT mythical character. Savannah became the awkward and odd looking public face of Laura’s fictional creation. She wanted JT to be elusive, mysterious and magical and pressured her to cooperate by describing it as a Chinese finger puzzle. “You have to go in further to get out.”

Source material for the film comes from Savannah’s memoir who gets her own writing credit along with Director Justin Kelly for the script. You get the story from JT’s (Savannah’s) point of view which deprives the movie from exploring more of the provocative workings in Laura Albert’s imaginative mind.

Laura Dern is totally uninhibited as Albert in her created character of JT’s handler, “Speedy.” She’s the over-the-top, manic, insecure, talented puppeteer pulling JT’s strings while wearing a flaming red wig and faking a broad English accent. Dern plays such an excellent manipulator, she shows how expertly orchestrated the ruse for years. 

Dern has moments on-screen when she is absolutely magnetic. She grabs the camera and won’t let it, nor the audience, go. Had more time been spent on exploring Albert’s motivation and especially her own creation, “Speedy,” this could have been a much more compelling story. 

Albert chose to hide behind the JT Leroy moniker to keep her insecure self out of the limelight. Like many other female writers, (e.g. J.K. Rowling writing under the name Robert Galbraith), she could have pulled this off, except for her creation of Savannah as the androgynous male alter-ego.

Why did Albert perpetrate the hoax? She was lured by fame and fortune and when the opportunity presented itself. She loved the prospect of signing a movie deal with a European actor/director, Eva, (Diane Kruger). 

Eva seems to be captivated but is she using JT too? Kruger is captivating in this film herself. Her character is loosely based on Asia Argento who directed and starred in The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things in 2005, which was actually from one of Laura Albert’s books. Eva wants those movie rights so bad, she seduces JT and then cruelly ignores him/her as soon as the rights are secured.

Kristen Stewart brings an understated, whispery-voice to her character. Director Kelly has her hidden behind sunglasses and a blonde wig, yet shoots her face in extreme close-up showing the confusion and fear of this young woman navigating the public stage while pretending to be a male. It really messes with her head and will mess with yours, too. 

This film examines gender and female bisexuality from a totally different perspective. Savannah, as JT, totally shy and weak at first, finally discovers excitement and power in being perceived as a male. But rather than exploring those feelings, the plot settles ultimately for staying as a biopic rather than addressing those issues more fully. Another totally predictable path is the jealously that builds is when JT gets more attention than his/her creator. 

This JT Leroy film feels bland, lacking a light, nuanced touch. There are few revelations about the cult of celebrity or insight into gender identity. This subject has already been on film a couple of times, the latest being a 2016 documentary Author: The JT Leroy Story. 

As Oscar Wilde is quoted in the open of the film, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” Despite the shortcomings of the script, Dern and Stewart create sparkling lead performances and Diane Kruger makes the most of every second she’s on-screen. But unlike the unfolding of the hoax plotline, the performances by Dern and Stewart ring true.


from Movies and Shakers

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