We all have those stories that sound so outlandish and impossible even having experienced them hasn’t quite convinced you of their reality. Stories that even leave you in disbelief as you’re recounting them. The thing is that when you hear these type of stranger-than-fiction tales, you know they have to be true because no imagination in the world is strong enough to fabricate something so outrageous. For your consideration and disbelief, I present to you JT LeRoy.
Jeremiah “Terminator” LeRoy is an American author that emerged in the ’90s. He wrote about his childhood experiences and abuses at the hands of his mother, and how her lifestyle would ultimately lead him down a similarly dark path. JT’s short stories and novels like “Sarah” and “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things” spoke to an entire generation of youth who are going or have gone through the same events or experienced the same feelings. His severe reclusiveness would keep him from ever being seen in public, but it didn’t stop him from corresponding to the outside world through phone calls and emails. In 2001, he finally stepped out into the public eye, only for the public to realize that everything just written about JT LeRoy was a complete lie.
Director Justin Kelly’s career consists of bringing to life these kinds of stories with films like King Cobra and I Am Michael. The best part about the stories that Kelly chooses to tell us is how queer they are. Almost all of his films consist of real-life LGBTQ+ people whose lives take an unexpected turn. His focus tends to be on the people involved rather than just the events themselves, making all of the emotions and some of the struggles relatable regardless of how much you actually have in common with the characters. Have you ever impersonated an author that doesn’t exist? Not a problem because you’ll easily be able to empathize with the motivations behind it either way.
Relying on this film as your sole source for this series of events would be a mistake. Jeff Feuerzeig’s incredible documentary, Author: The JT LeRoy Story, is recommended viewing before watching JT LeRoy. In Author, you get a much closer look at the real author, Laura Albert, and a much closer examination of the system that basically made her feel like her work would only get attention if people thought it was written by a man. While you do get a sense of that in JT LeRoy, it mostly backgrounds to the other half of the story, the other half of JT LeRoy himself, Savannah Knoop (Kristen Stewart). Co-written by Kelly and Knoop, this film explores Savannah’s journey as JT, and how, like Laura, she felt the freedom to express some otherwise suppressed parts of her identity only while donning the persona.
I’m sure it was actually must more complex than that in real life, but here we see it mostly superficially and without much depth. While seeing this unfold from a different perspective helps round out the story as a whole, everything in the film feels procedural. The best aspect of this narrative film over the documentary are the performances, most notably Kristen Stewart and Laura Dern. While the eccentricities of Dern’s character are definite highlights, JT LeRoy’s somber, sincere center is guided entirely by Stewart’s reserved, yet poignant performance. We’ve all been told that there are at least two sides to any story, but the intent of JT LeRoy isn’t to elaborate on he-said-she-said details, but to explore the complexity behind why these two artists were attracted to the mask known as JT LeRoy.