The literary world was a more interesting place with JT LeRoy around, even though he never was, really. The pen name of author Laura Albert, "JT" was an androgynous former truck-stop sex worker who supposedly channeled his sordid upbringing into raw, autobiographical fictions that captivated hip circles in the late '90s and early 2000s. Albert played JT on the page and in phone calls with journalists and famous admirers, duping the public into believing the guise was real.
In public, though, JT was played by Albert's sibling-in-law Savannah Knoop in a wig and sunglasses, and it's Knoop's perspective we get in the new biopic JT LeRoy, which is based on the artist's memoir and co-written and executive-produced by Knoop. Only 13 years after journalists revealed JT's deception, his mythos has already been picked over several times, including in two documentaries, and most of the postmortems have explored why a frustrated author would feel a need to invent such a personality. But the new film smartly illuminates what's been missing from other accounts: Why someone like Knoop would agree to, and even enjoy, taking part in someone else's hoax.
This seems in many ways the perfect role for Kristen Stewart, who has been open about her own sexuality in recent years. In JT LeRoy, she gets to craft a gender-fluid performance of real heart and verve. As Knoop (who today goes by "they"), Stewart is shifty, seemingly waiting for the chance to disappear under something. And in the guise of JT, Stewart leans even further into these qualities: wearing the wig like a shield, mumbling, shifting uneasily back and forth. Yet a different kind of confidence burrows through the unease, a freedom to publicly inhabit an identity that's neither male nor female, to upset and arouse everyone else simply by existing.
This story is less like a traditional "hoax" narrative and more like a hipster Pygmalion. It opens with JT fever already in full swing, as Knoop arrives in San Francisco in 1999 to crash with brother Geoffrey (Jim Sturgess), unaware of the literary phenom his wife Laura (Laura Dern) has been cooking up from their bedroom. But Knoop happens to look a lot like the "photo" of JT that Laura has already slapped on her bestselling novel's dust jacket, so when the outside world wants a taste of the real deal, the two kick into full-on makeover mode to bring Laura's creation into the open.
Laura Dern makes Albert a supremely difficult person to love: a driven yet clueless creator who fetishizes white poverty and hides behind a series of masks in order to avoid grappling with her own decisions. (In order to tag along with her creation, she dons a tacky British accent and casts herself as "Speedie," JT's agent/handler.) But Dern, Knoop and Kelly still give her a nuanced sadness and desperation. We learn about her background in a group home, calling suicide hotlines under assumed names, and come to realize that the deception isn't motivated by greed but by a deeper need to become someone else. In this way, she and Knoop are linked, and when she's infuriated at Knoop's flirtations with a famous actress (Diane Kruger, her character transparently modeled on Asia Argento), it's because she feels her own words slipping away from her.
Director Justin Kelly, who also co-wrote the script with Knoop, is clearly fascinated by these sorts of stories that challenge conventional wisdom about gender and sexuality. His underseen debut feature, I Am Michael, charted a pathway from LGBT activism to Christian fundamentalism through the eyes of the same person. In a similar vein, JT's tale becomes a hall of mirrors where perceptions of gender and class mingle with the public's willingness to see truth in the lies right in front of them.
Yet for all its opportunities to delve into cinematic half-truths and meta-fictions, JT LeRoy is mostly content to avoid too much experimentation. Even when Knoop and Albert visit a film set that's recreated JT's West Virginia "childhood," the movie largely bypasses the opportunity to do anything surprising with such an absurd scene. Could it have become a co-conspirator, instead of merely a passive observer: wholly invented sequences from the kiddo's life, that kind of thing? After all, for a story like JT's, no fiction is too great.