All art walks a line between reality and intention. This is made more complicated when the reality and intention the artist puts forth conflicts with that of the receivers. In many ways, the artist themselves becomes unimportant in comparison to how the art is received. However, that does not mean that the credibility of the artist can’t, in some manner, destroy the art via perceived deception. Attempting to explore this notion is the Justin Kelly-directed drama J.T. LeRoy, based on the autobiographical memoir by Savannah Knoop, Girl Boy Girl: How I Became J.T. LeRoy. In it, Knoop lays out the brief period of time she posed as the living avatar for one-time phenomenon LeRoy. While the events reportedly shook the literary world when the beloved, reclusive LeRoy was found to be a creation of artist Laura Albert, Kelly’s film elects to focus mainly on Knoop’s perspective, offering a less sensational telling of the story by concentrating on the interpersonal relationships of the involved. In combination with an incredible cast composed of Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern, Diana Kruger, and Jim Sturgess, J.T. LeRoy doesn’t pass judgement on any of the principals involved and allows the complexity of the situation speak for itself.
In 2001, Savannah Knoop (Stewart) moves to San Francisco to be near her musician brother Geoff (Sturgess) and his artist common-law wife Laura (Dern). After some time, Laura brings Savannah a copy of a book she wrote under the pseudonym J.T. LeRoy as Savannah physically reminds Laura of what J.T. looks like. So begins Savannah’s induction into the world of J.T.. No one has ever met him in person and anyone who communicates with him does so via Laura on the phone or on email. It’s a charade Laura continues under the belief that no one is interested in her own thoughts and Savannah goes along with it. However, complications arise when producer Eva Avelin (Diane Kruger) wants to star in and direct a film based on J.T.’s work and gets in touch with him. Unexpectedly, the relationship between Eva and the voice of J.T. deepens just as Savannah finds herself falling for Eva, too.
If you’re unfamiliar with J.T. LeRoy and his work or the public response which crashed down upon Laura Albert, then the synopsis will sound like something sensational. Kelly’s approach to the story is far more grounded, even when taking a few liberties. While that acknowledgement may induce an incendiary response from audiences looking for more truth in a situation surrounded by outwardly seeming lies and malcontent, it’s an approach which dares to look at the people involved with as judgement-free a perspective as possible. Sometimes this works well, as with Eva, a fictionalized character representing Italian actress and director Asia Argento. In reality, Argento directed The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, a film based on LeRoy’s short stories. In LeRoy, by changing the character to Eva and the film becoming an adaptation of the novel Sarah, it allows a bit more freedom in presenting a version of the events unclouded by LeRoy’s relationship with Argento, while also enabling both Laura and Savannah to remain the focus. While not an honest representation of events, it centers the flow of content and enables the over-arching themes to become the focus. Similarly, the representation of time and events is left ambiguous, often with no real anchor to ground the audience other than title cards denoting dramatic shifts in locations. This, too, serves a dual purpose as it keeps the focus on the shifting power dynamic between Laura and Savannah and the resulting personal growth which comes from it. In a way, it’s very much in line with a grander theme of the film, the truth of the art versus the truth of the artist.
Wisely, J.T. LeRoy has no intention to answer that question. As if to ensure that the film doesn’t take a stance, the whole film is purposefully taken largely from Savannah’s POV, reducing any potential guess work for Kelly and Knoop as to the inner-workings of Laura’s psyche, as well as to her activities when alone. With the focus maintained on Savannah, the audience is offered more of an insider’s look into the whys of it all. Is Laura a charlatan looking to prey on the weakness of others? Is Savannah a grifter going along for the chance of access and adoration? While looking outward in, that might certainly seem like the case, yet, through keeping the tale insular and intimate, another idea arises. An idea that neither woman is a complete villain, but is seeking something which they each felt they could not attain if they were honest with themselves. Laura’s punk-rock, devil-may-care, go-with-the-moment persona is a shield from the trauma she experienced as a child (the very same ones LeRoy experienced), yet she felt that no one wanted to hear from her and that packaging it made it more accessible. Similarly, Savannah views herself as offering nothing of value, even though she designs customwear and is clever and intelligent, yet wearing the mask of LeRoy offers a chance to step outside of herself and into a body which feels more natural to her. Much of this, of course, is conveyed through Dern’s and Stewart’s respective performances, both of which are delivered with the tenderness and care expected from such incredible actors. In concert with Kelly’s presentation, the whole of LeRoy lacks an excess of dramatization which serves to maintain a level of authenticity to the story.
As compelling as Kelly’s approach to the LeRoy controversy is, there’s a scene at the end of the film which adds a deeper layer to the proceedings, opening J.T. LeRoy from a simple drama exploring a literary conspiracy into an exploration of self-identity. Throughout the film, Kelly ensures that the audience is reminded that Laura *is* J.T., that they’re her experiences which birthed the name and the words to which that name is connected, that her own perceived lack of agency resulting from multiple traumas generated a schism within Laura between her corporeal form and how she presents herself in society, and that J.T. freed her from the trap her body had become. It’s wonderful in the sense that the film isn’t about queerness or being an Other, but is about individuals caught up in the wake of their own lack of self-worth. This scene takes those subtle notions and places a lovely, thoughtful capper on the whole of LeRoy, presenting a real, honest, and human desire for agency in a body which feels unnatural, not an explanation or excuse for what some perceived as a scheme for notoriety.
Director Justin Kelly’s adaptation is a perfect soft entry point to learn more about J.T. LeRoy. His film captures the essence of controversy without indulging in sensationalism. Interestingly, what prevents J.T. LeRoy from being as captivating as the story it presents is the reluctance to adhere to the constraints for reality, instead opting to serve the narrative themes. Does this make LeRoy somehow less interesting or engaging? No. What it does do, however, is imply that the facts don’t matter as long as the audience connects with the material. Some artists argue that what an audience takes away from a piece is far more important than the intent or specificity of the art, making the whole of LeRoy seem intentional in its approach. However, one can’t help but wonder if a more direct, anchored story would better serve to change the perspectives of people who are already familiar with subject matter. But that’s why Kelly’s film is a great entry point. It offers a perspective without judgement from a set of actors (Kruger especially is fantastic here) committed to telling a story about people. Not villains, not monsters, but people. From there, it may be far to suggest, Kelly would have audiences dig into the works of LeRoy/Albert and make up their own minds on whether a controversy occurred or not.
In select theaters, on VOD, and digital April 26th, 2019.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.