‘J.T. LeRoy’ Review: Unpeeling the Layers of an All-American Hoax

Despite all the articles and exposés, the tell-all books and documentary investigations, it still isn’t clear why anyone bought into the hoax known as JT LeRoy. Perhaps you remember him, the teenage boy turned cross-dressing prostitute who survived a horrific childhood (poverty, abuse, addiction) to become an acclaimed writer. Or perhaps you remember her: Laura Albert, the woman who invented Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy — giving him voice on the page and on the phone — and who turned her fantasy into a cult figure, chart-topping memoirist and reclusive, tantalizing elusive object of desire.

It’s hard to know if anyone would remember JT LeRoy much less Albert if so many celebrities hadn’t fallen for this fiction, bestowing their love and legitimacy on a fraud. These starry types pop up in “J.T. LeRoy,” a diverting account of the hoax told largely from the point of view of Savannah Knoop (Kristen Stewart), who, coaxed and coached by Albert (Laura Dern), pretended to be JT. Stepping into the role of the dewy grit-lit sensation, Knoop became the boy in the Warholian wig and sunglasses hanging out with Courtney Love (she pops up here) and nuzzling with Asia Argento, who turned LeRoy-Albert’s 2001 book “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things” into a truly terrible movie.

“J.T. LeRoy” is a tougher, better movie than “Author” and generally comes off as more honest. Directed by Justin Kelly, who wrote the script with Knoop, it focuses on Savannah’s role in the fraud, peeling back the details — physical, psychological — in a masquerade that rather astonishingly lasted some half-dozen years. Anchored by its two excellent leads, the movie is sympathetic and, for the most part, unsentimental.

In this telling, the young Savannah is an eager-to-please naïf who falls first for Laura’s smooth talk and then for the mounting pleasures that playing this fictional creation delivers, including a relationship with an actress-director wittily played by Diane Kruger. Savannah-JT isn’t remotely believable as a teenage boy but does have beauty and mystery.

At first, Kelly seems to be puckishly nodding to “Author.” Both toss in an epigram about the truth right at the top: “Author” quotes Federico Fellini, while “J.T. LeRoy” cites Oscar Wilde. Soon, Kelly establishes his own angle and approach, underscoring Savannah’s earnestness and Laura’s disingenuousness as the story jumps around San Francisco and then moves farther afield as the JT show goes big and then bigger.

Stewart seems too worldly to be playing the innocent portrayed here. But her gift for showing you a character’s interior states, for feelings that delicately brush the skin, gives Savannah a vulnerability that becomes an expressive counterpoint to Laura’s grandiosity and wounded narcissism. Few actors inhabit the space between charming and monstrous as brilliantly as Dern does.

The JT LeRoy fiction started unraveling in the mid-2000s as journalists chased down suspicions and inconsistencies. In his New York magazine story “Who Is the Real JT LeRoy?,” the writer Stephen Beachy suggested that the answer was Albert. He also wondered about its significance. “Does it matter if ‘JT LeRoy’ never lived in a squat, if he never tricked on Polk Street, never was a lot lizard, isn’t from West Virginia?” Beachy wrote. “Does it matter if he is, more or less, a 39-year-old mother named Laura Albert, originally from Brooklyn? Where’s the harm?” It’s a question that “J.T. LeRoy” suggests is at least worth asking, even about a farce as transparently, laughably absurd as this one.

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