By any reasonable expectation, the casting of Kristen Stewart in the role of Savannah Knoop, the young woman who impersonated the fictional literary sensation JT LeRoy, which was created by her brother’s unstable girlfriend Laura Albert (Laura Dern), should have been enough of a coup. Stewart’s own prickly relationship with celebrity, her androgynous beauty and embrace of queer identity, would by itself have added more than enough layers of metatextual intrigue to the story of a bisexual woman who pretended to be a bisexual man who was entirely the creation of another woman.
But the timing of Justin Kelly’s film about a literary hoax that exposed the hypocrisy surrounding the idea of authenticity in the publishing world has repercussions that far outstrip the original plan. Uncomfortably thrust into close proximity to the allegations of sexual abuse leveled against #MeToo pioneer Asia Argento, as enjoyable as the film is in its own terms — between its strong performances and its intermittent insights into sexuality, gender, and the nature of constructed identities — “JT LeRoy” already feels like a smaller, gentler, interim version of a story that is not done telling itself yet.
Taking a more condensed view than the broader tale outlined in documentary “Author: The JT Leroy Story,” Kelly co-wrote the screenplay with Knoop, based on Knoop’s book about her experiences “playing” LeRoy. And so the film begins with the con game already up and running. Laura Albert, played by Dern in a fantastically watchable, often quite broad performance that can be grotesque but is also always a little bit sad, has already written LeRoy’s first, “semi-autobiographical” novel, “Sarah,” and the tawdry, tragic life it outlines has already seen LeRoy become the darling of the bestseller list. Laura, a former phone-sex operator, has put her vocal and imaginative talents to use creating a persona for LeRoy, complete with husky, battered-Southern-belle accent, that exists everywhere except in the flesh.
But that sham can only take her so far, and when Laura meets Savannah (Stewart), the younger sister of her long-term boyfriend Geoff (Jim Sturgess), she sees in the shy, awkward 19-year-old, with her messy crop of blue hair and halting sexuality, the perfect vessel for the gender-fluid LeRoy of her imagination. First asking her to play LeRoy during photo shoots — a fun little game that brings the two of them closer together (Stewart is particularly good capturing Savannah’s dazzled early idolization of the worldly, creative Laura) — soon Savannah is doing interviews and attending parties as JT, with Laura always hovering nearby disguised as dreadful comic creation Speedy, LeRoy’s precariously accented British manager.
Couched in DP Bobby Bukowski’s understated cinematography, that heightens the artificial, dress-up nature of so much of Laura and Savannah’s posturing by keeping the look of the film blandly banal otherwise, the film is at its most confident exploring the complicity of those duped, and their weird desire for the sordid details of LeRoy’s writing to be factual because they are so grimly moving. One of the people apparently so deeply affected — along with, reportedly, Tom Waits, Madonna, and Courtney Love, who is stunt-cast here as an admirer called Sasha — is Eva (Diane Kruger), a glamorous European movie star doggedly pursuing the film rights to “Sarah” on which she wants to make her directorial debut. Despite Savannah having a stable relationship back in San Francisco with nice-guy Sean (an underused Kelvin Harrison Jr.), she is besotted with Eva, who takes an unseemly interest in seducing the damaged JT, from whom she’s trying to option the film rights — raising curious questions about how much of the role-playing deception she understood.
It’s here that recent events intrude to further complicate an already complicatedly meta story. With Kruger’s Eva an obvious stand-in for Argento (who made LeRoy’s second book, “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things,” into a 2004 film in which she did indeed star, which also played in Cannes, and which co-starred Jimmy Bennett, Argento’s recent accuser) suddenly, Kelly’s film is thrust into the same weird vortex as LeRoy’s writing, in that much of its intrigue derives not so much from the story itself as from the extent to which we can believe it’s true. The level of cognitive dissonance built up trying to sort out reality from layers of fiction and metafiction becomes genuinely confusing, and threatens to sideline the intended narrative, and the fine work of its lead actresses, in fascinating, but uncontrollable ways.
It’s not like the issues raised by the Argento controversy have nothing to do with the central themes of the film, or like the audience who will be spurred to see a film about LeRoy starring Stewart are likely to be unaware or uninterested in this wider context. As far as it goes, “JT LeRoy” is a capable film featuring superbly spiky performances from both Stewart and Dern (and Kruger, too, who impresses most in the moments when Savannah’s deception is finally revealed to Eva). But reality has gone further, making the film a far less simple and more ambivalent experience — one that both chastises and encourages our most salacious impulses as viewers. Perhaps that’s the problem when you make a fiction film predicated on the truism that truth is stranger than fiction: There’s always a danger reality will, without warning, bite back, gazump your carefully constructed storytelling, and steal the show. JT LeRoy himself must be laughing his fictional head off.