Indie film writer/director Justin Kelly’s latest effort is a biographical drama with so many layers, ranging from truth to fantasy to outright fraud, that watching them all shift and interact provides as much entertainment as the movie itself. With most films, that would be a bad thing; with Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy, it somehow works, and Kelly is probably right to let the story embrace all the various levels of reality and unreality, and even to push the boundaries a little, in telling the story of a strange and audacious literary hoax.
The essential background: in 1999, a novel entitled Sarah, by unknown author J T LeRoy, reportedly a reclusive young man, became a bestseller. It was followed up with additional fiction by LeRoy, all of it autobiographical material based on the author’s own abusive childhood, his relationship with his unbalanced sex-worker mother, his uncertainty about his own gender, and his painful years as a teenaged vagrant and sometime boy prostitute. The writer’s unique and heartfelt style, and the brutally candid content, won LeRoy something of a cult following. Demands from his fans led the reclusive author to allow his photograph to be published, and finally and reluctantly to agree to public appearances. That, at least, was the situation understood to be true by the public, including the press and LeRoy’s many admirers.
Six years after LeRoy’s work was first published, it was revealed that J T LeRoy was, in fact, a fictional creation of the real author, a woman in her thirties named Laura Albert. The supposed boy author who appeared as J T LeRoy was actually a young woman named Savannah Knoop, Laura Albert’s sister-in-law, disguised as a young man. A few years after the hoax was uncovered, Knoop wrote her own account of her time impersonating the imaginary author: Girl Boy Girl: How I Became J T LeRoy. The film is mainly based on that memoir.
Justin Kelly’s script goes beyond the hoax, the elaborate measures taken to hide the truth, and the eventual exposé, to the many, often confused motivations behind it all. It emerges that writer Laura Albert (played by Laura Dern), to all appearances a happy wife and mother, had experienced a traumatic childhood, and had throughout her life repressed confusion about her gender. She expressed and worked through her inner torments by using the voice of her imaginary persona, J T LeRoy, to tell her metaphorical story, and once her book was published became increasingly caught up in her own fabrication. Her sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop (Kristen Stewart) first became involved reluctantly, as a favour to Laura, but as time went on became fascinated by the author she was impersonating, and liberated by taking on a character so unlike herself yet resonating with aspects of her personality, becoming caught up in the attention, the publicity, and even the sexual attention that resulted. The obsessive quality of the elaborate pretence drives the characters above all. Laura Albert’s husband, Geffrey Knoop (Jim Sturgess) is at first supportive, but finds himself brushed aside as the J T LeRoy hoax and its public following expands and takes on a life of its own, sweeping his wife and sister along with it; in the same way, Savannah’s kind and caring boyfriend, Sean (Kevin Harrison), finds himself left behind, unable to compete with the fascination Savannah’s role as J T LeRoy offers. The film is, above all, a complex and in-depth character study, and an examination of the addictive qualities of large-scale deceit.
The casting is a big part of why this film works. The brilliant Laura Dern brings across the creative but scattered and confused writer, her devotion to her own creation and her determination to maintain the deception to the bitter end, in a strong and often flamboyant portrayal. She is weird and hilarious as “Speedie,” J T LeRoy’s invented literary agent and constant companion, disguised with a wig and a badly done British accent, who accompanies the supposed LeRoy to all his public appearances, including the celebrity-filled parties they were frequently invited to, and guarding their secret by doing most of his talking for him at first. (Dern’s experience working with David Lynch must surely have been helpful in dealing with this role.) Laura Albert/Speedie is not always an upbeat character; she endures jealousy when her beloved character is taken over by someone else, and discovers the underside of celebrity when she, the actual author of the popular books, is treated contemptuously by fans who are interested only in LeRoy. Kristen Stewart, always at her best in a role that demands a strong but subtle, understated performance, is equally good as the initially shy and uncertain Savannah, who allows her own boyish looks and manner to be exploited, then used as a means to her own liberation, as she discovers unexpected things about herself through this years-long impersonation. Some of the more engaging scenes are those in which Savannah, feeling more and more at ease as J T LeRoy, begins to boldly cut Laura’s puppet strings and make genuine and spontaneous statements not devised by Laura.
The meta aspects of the film and the well-known details of the hoax, rather than distracting from the story, add to it. Kristen Stewart’s androgynous style, and her recent and publicly noted turn toward the sexually ambiguous, unavoidably informs the transformation from the petite and boyish Savannah to J T LeRoy. Similarly, the open secret that the character of Eva (Diane Kruger), the filmmaker who began a sexual dalliance with J T LeRoy at least partly to obtain movie rights to his books, represents actress and director Asia Argento, who directed and starred in her own adaptation of a LeRoy novel, provides unspoken background. In the same way, Argento’s alleged liaison with an underaged boy cannot help but colour Eva’s affair with someone she believed to be an unstable and traumatised person just out of his teens – even though the character of Eva, and her sense of betrayal when the hoax is revealed, are portrayed sympathetically. There is even some deliberately tricky casting, such as giving Courtney Love, who had met Savannah and Laura before the hoax was revealed, a small part as a LeRoy admirer.
This is a surprisingly insightful, well-handled telling of an incredibly messy, sometimes repulsive, but strangely fascinating bit of popular history.