JT LeRoy a captivating story about art and identity

Based on the memoir written by Savannah Knoop, JT LeRoy is about an author who has found success writing under an alternate identity and who petitions her boyfriend’s sister, Savannah, to embody him. Kristen Stewart and Laura Dern are electric in this fascinating story. (JRL: 4 / 5) 

Looking to start a new life, Savannah Knoop (Kristen Stewart) moves to San Francisco to live with her brother, Geoff (Jim Sturgess) and his wife, Laura (Laura Dern). Laura is a writer who’s gained notoriety for her book, Sarah, written under the persona of “JT LeRoy”, a young man raised as a woman and ostracized when the truth is revealed. Until this point, she has been sticking to phone interviews, speaking in a dicey southern accent and insisting that JT is too shy to enter the public eye. But as Laura gets to know Savannah, she realizes that Savannah could be the face of JT LeRoy for in-person photoshoots and interviews. She convinces Savannah to take on the role, telling her that “I felt JT leave my body and enter yours.” Savannah agrees, enticed by the opportunity to take on a new persona. Laura becomes “Speedie”, JT LeRoy’s finicky, British manager. 

Savannah and Laura travel the country taking photos and doing interviews. Savannah, perpetually afraid that others won’t believe she’s JT, adds a reserved and timid quality to JT that is actually incredibly enticing, only adding to public fascination about the writer. 

Things get more complicated when a movie producer (played by Courtney Love, who, coincidentally, was friends with the real JT LeRoy) approaches them to make a feature film out of Laura’s novel. They travel to France to collaborate with Eva (Diane Kruger), who’s adamant on directing and starring in the film. Savannah develops an attraction to her and the two have a sexual encounter, but Eva may only be attracted to the idea of JT and the movie rights he can grant her. 

As time goes on, Laura and Savannah struggle deeply with the complications that JT brings to their lives and they must grapple with complicated questions of self-worth and identity and how it’s tied to their art. 

My favorite thing about JT LeRoy is its two fascinating main characters, whom the film refuses to put in boxes. Laura, for example, is one the one hand passionate and loving and forest-nymph-like, but in other moments tosses out comments so biting that her morals are called completely into question. Both Laura Dern, the actor playing the role, and the conflicting and nuanced writing together manage to create a character that is truly impossible to fully love or fully hate, which is extremely impressive. Savannah is androgynous and fluid, in her gender and sexuality and in the way she interacts with those around her. 

However, the other personalities in the film don’t match Savannah and Laura in nuance  at all. In fact, they all feel a bit like accessories, meant to bring out certain sides of Laura and Savannah. Laura’s husband Geoff and Savannah’s boyfriend Sean (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) in particular felt incomplete, only focused on the two protagonists and without trajectories of their own. Because Savannah and Laura are such rich characters, I would have liked to see the people around them match in complexity. 

On the plus side, because the main characters Savannah and Laura are quite fluid, JT LeRoy presents queerness in a way that I haven’t seen it done before. Both Savannah and Laura express interest in men and women, and yet neither seems too hard-pressed to define herself according to any of it. Savannah is also genderqueer, avoiding fattening foods because she doesn’t want “curves,” but doesn’t quite come out as a transgender man. It seems like she mostly doesn’t want to be a woman, that she’s something else instead, whether or not that’s a man. I think this fluidity of gender is something that a lot of people experience but that doesn’t get much of representation in media. This film could connect with a queer audience in a really meaningful way. 

Kristen Stewart seems to have found her acting niche with the role of Savannah. She switches seamlessly from the character of an eager young woman to the character of a brooding young man and is able to embody the fearful conflict of a young and queer person in a way that is seriously captivating. Stewart’s performance in this film shows that she is far more complex than the Bella Swan-type roles she’s been relegated to in the past. 

At its core, JT LeRoy is a film about art. To Laura, the story she tells as JT is truth, regardless of whether or not she is JT. Art is a medium for truth that transcends identities and facts; it’s about a feeling and an intuitive understanding of what’s being said. I don’t know how much of JT LeRoy is from the real story and how much is embellishment, but in the spirit of its message, that doesn’t matter;  JT LeRoy feels deeply true. 

© Julia Lasker | FF2 Media

Commentary by Review Coach Giorgi Plys-Garzotto

Usually it’s the people with the most to gain from lying who say truth is whatever you want it to be, and this is true with JT Leroy. Everyone in the movie is pushing their own angle, whether it’s Laura manipulating Sarah or Savannah manipulating Eva and Sean. Eva in turn manipulates Savannah/ JT, and on and on it goes. Perhaps in that sense truth is fluid, since it’s all about whose narrative happens to be winning at the moment. However, while I appreciated what the movie had to say about fluid sexuality and gender, it struck me as problematic that the film seemed to put the experience of reinventing one’s identity through queerness in the same vein as Savannah masquerading as a bestselling author. 

There’s a pernicious narrative that trans people are just dressing up as their true gender rather than existing as that gender, so a reading of Savannah as trans would give this film a reactionary bent, especially considering the way the plot wraps up. If Savannah dates women as JT but then goes back to her life as a woman and dates Sean, does that mean she can be any gender she wants to be, as long as she’s always straight?  Savannah comments to Laura that she has dated women before but wouldn’t call herself queer (or something to that effect; the line escapes me) and Laura gives her that groan-worthy “I experiment” narrative that queer women will have heard from countless straight girls. 

I’m not saying this wasn’t a great movie; I enjoyed it. I just didn’t enjoy it as a queer manifesto. What it had to say about identity was about as unfocused as many of the vague half-truths Savannah used to keep up her pretenses as JT. I find films that explore truth often have trouble actually pinning down an angle on truth other than the nebulous “truth is whatever you want it to be,” and JT Leroy is one such. While you won’t leave the movie wondering if the top ever stops spinning a la Inception, the film sets up a lot of questions about identity and truth only to leave them at the end still spinning, just as surely as Leo’s dream totem. However, I’m not opposed to a fun movie that uses Shakespeare style cross-dressing deception for high-stakes love affairs with paupers posing as princes. As You Like It is one of Shakespeare’s more thematically flat plays, but it’s still a great comedy–and just so, JT Leroy is still a great drama.

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