Kristen Stewart courts a world of vampires in JT Leroy

Movie Review: JT Leroy

Director Justin Kelly stands knee-deep in a stinky literary scandal to sift through worthy bits of narrative, and muck out a good story about a writer who found her voice through a gay, male prostitute — then convinced her sister-in-law to play along.

JT Leroy

3.5/5

Starring: Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern, Jim Sturgess, Diane Kruger, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Courtney Love

Directed by: Justin Kelly

Rating: Restricted

Running time: 1 hr 48 mins

By Katherine Monk

“The world is a vampire” was a popular sentiment in the late ‘90s, manifesting in everything from angst-ridden rock music to movies and literature — particularly the work of an author named J.T. Leroy. Leroy’s first novel, Sarah, explored the world through the eyes of a truck stop prostitute and her androgynous son, a pathos-laden and primitive poet, who many assumed to be Leroy himself.

We were supposed to believe Leroy was writing down his own story as part of a therapeutic healing process, and that his dark meditations on life and the ambient blood-suckers that surround us were steeped in genuine experience.

For many, Sarah felt so real and raw, it was a revelation. Leroy found fans in the likes of the era’s most famous and maladjusted, such as The Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan, film director Gus Van Sant (who adapted his film Elephant from a JT Leroy script), singer Tom Waits, Courtney Love, Shirley Manson and even the one and only Madonna.

But for all the “authenticity” people detected in Leroy’s work, the very idea of Leroy was a lie. Jeremiah Terminator Leroy did not exist. He was the fabrication of a woman named Laura Albert, a writer and lyricist who felt a need to write dark stories under an assumed name and personage — then pitch them to the public via an avatar, who turned out to be her sister-in-law, a college dropout  named Savannah Knoop.

The fakery worked for six years and three bestselling books. Then, it all fell apart as one of the greatest “literary hoaxes” of our era. Knoop wrote a memoir of her time behind sunglasses and a wide-brimmed black hat playing Leroy, documentaries about the faux folk hero cropped up on TV and festival screens, and now, we’re getting the full-on Hollywood take complete with A-list actors playing the notorious outsiders who duped their way to the top.

Kristen Stewart plays Savannah Knoop. Laura Dern plays Laura Albert. Both women are tremendous talents, and both can tap into deep reserves of empathy without much effort because they both embody something fearless, honest and mysteriously female. Yet, this is not a movie about empathy, or even forgiveness.

JT Leroy is about seeing how far you get before the truth pops up like an angry pimple, which means neither Dern nor Stewart come off as perfect heroes. Ironically, even though this script is based on Savannah Knoop’s side of the story, Knoop feels entirely blurry as a character — unable to articulate, or represent, anything solid or honest except an underlying sense of resentment.

JT Leroy is about seeing how far you get before the truth pops up like an angry pimple, which means neither Dern nor Stewart come off as perfect heroes.

It’s not the most flattering of roles, but it’s one Stewart embodies beautifully, allowing her to exploit her natural aloofness, apparent itchiness in her own skin, and a slightly vacant screen presence that leaves room for an alter ego, and a variety emotional interpretations.

Butting up against all this youthful mush is Laura Dern as Laura Albert — the grown up with the writer’s gift, and a wheelbarrow full of baggage. Knoop’s memoir certainly paints Albert as the mastermind behind the great deception, and as a resut, the de facto villain.

Yet, whether it’s the sheer force of Dern’s performance weighed against the breathy nuances of Stewart’s, there’s something about Albert that defies a desire to finger-point. After all, we may want to punish the liar, but Albert still wrote the words that inspired the masses to adore JT Leroy. Albert wanted to hide behind a male pen name because she believed people would take her more seriously, and she was right.

Albert wanted to hide behind a male pen name because she believed people would take her more seriously, and she was right.

People were eager to embrace an 18-year-old blond-haired boy who cross-dressed and turned tricks at truck stops, but a middle-aged woman with a history of mental illness who played in an LA bar band wasn’t going to ignite the same degree of hipster enthusiasm.

Argento JT Leroy

A world full of vampires: JT Leroy (Savannah Knoop) became the object of Asia Argento’s desire — when Argento (lover of the late Anthony Bourdain) wanted to make a movie about Leroy’s life.

What Albert learned is that people want to believe a lie if you serve up the right one, and make it easy to swallow. Her understanding of all the dark motives and deep denial that we unconsciously engage in forms the unspoken core of this whole movie, because it’s how Knoop and Albert were able to deceive the masses. It’s also how Albert successfully manipulated everyone around her: She understands human nature, especially ego needs — which often trump any sense of morality or common sense.

As a result, so much of what we see on screen is just plain pathetic — whether it’s Albert’s need to keep the fame and adulation coming, Knoop’s creepy enthusiasm for playing the celebrated victim, or grossest of all, the parade of show business poseurs who cozy up to the faux duo to heighten their own celebrity.

As a result, so much of what we see on screen is just plain pathetic — whether it’s Albert’s need to keep the fame and adulation coming, Knoop’s creepy enthusiasm for playing the celebrated victim, or grossest of all, the parade of show business poseurs who cozy up to the faux duo to heighten their own celebrity.

On that score, Diane Kruger deserves special credit for playing a fictionalized version of Asia Argento — the director-actor-artist and Eurotrash poster child who used every tool in her box to get what she wanted from JT Leroy, namely screen rights to Sarah.

Kruger does such a good job of playing a self-absorbed sex pot that she makes both Albert and Knoop look benign by comparison. She’s the ambient vampire of the era, constantly tabulating what’s in it for her, how to make herself more important, and finally, using sex as a cheap shortcut to human connection.

Knoop was too naive to figure it all out, believing in some romantic connection, but Albert saw it all through her writer’s X-ray goggles. And she calls it, leaving Knoop to lick her wounds, and label everyone else a liar.

The ugly truth of JT Leroy is that everyone was bullshitting everyone just about all the time. Lucky for us, director Justin Kelly (I Am Michael) didn’t mind standing knee-deep in the cow paddies to sift through worthy bits of narrative, and muck out a good story.

As irritating as it is to watch so much stupid and selfish squabbling, JT Leroy captures more than a particularly ripe moment in pop culture when we all sought something raw and real — and found it in a lie. The movie pushes us to ask what we were hoping to find at the bottom of the truck stop puddle — and why we wanted to go there in the first place.

Was it guilt, sympathy or just ordinary rubbernecking at the roadkill of modern life? Either way, the movie feels like a lump of bloody, furry flesh rotting away on the soft shoulder — proof of a tragic collision between something fast, industrial and impersonal, and a small, fragile creature seduced by the approaching bright lights.

In other words, it’s a bit of a mess. But in a world full of vampires and people pretending to be something other, JT Leroy unveils all the lies to show us a shared sense of desperation, as well as a deep need to invest in any fiction if it appeals to, and heroically reaffirms, our personal version of truth.

@katherinemonk

Main image: Laura Dern as Laura Albert and Kristen Stewart as JT Leroy (Savannah Knoop).
THE EX-PRESS, May 22, 2019

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Summary

3.5 Score

As irritating as it is to watch so much stupid and selfish squabbling, JT Leroy captures more than a particularly ripe moment in pop culture when we all sought something raw and real -- and found it in a lie. The movie pushes us to ask what we were hoping to find at the bottom of the truck stop puddle — and why we wanted to go there in the first place. Justin Kelly shows us all the ugliness, but Kristen Stewart and Laura Dern bring so much relatable emotion, it’s impossible to turn away -- or to judge. -- Katherine Monk

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