If co-writer/director Justin Kelly’s biopic “JT Leroy” (Universal) feels familiar, it’s might be because you may have already seen Jeff Feuerzeig’s 2016 doc “Author: The JT LeRoy Story”, which traverses similar territory. Both movies attempt to make sense of the rapid rise and even faster fall of socially withdrawn writer JT Leroy and his obnoxious manager Speedie beginning in 2001.
Of course, neither JT nor Speedie were real people. They were the creations of the overactive imagination of Laura Albert (played with manic energy by Laura Dern). Albert, who had talent to burn, was a struggling musician and writer. In addition to performing in a San Francisco-based band with her much younger husband Geoffrey (Jim Sturgess), Albert created a writer persona she called JT LeRoy. “Sarah”, a novel Albert wrote as LeRoy, tells the story of an underage male hustler turning tricks at truck stops with his hooker mother. Charming, right? Because of the attention that the book was receiving, Albert was faced with a conundrum. Booksellers and journalists wanted to meet LeRoy face-to-face, not just continue the telephone-only relationship that Albert had established.
Enter Savannah (androgynous queer actress Kristen Stewart), the younger bisexual sister of Geoffrey. Directionless Savannah has moved to San Francisco to make a new start and gets a job in food service. While waiting tables, Savannah meets Sean (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), and they quickly become lovers.
Seeing a vulnerability, Laura swoops right in to take advantage of Savannah. First, Laura convinces Savannah to dress as JT for a photo meant to accompany a piece about JT in “Interview Magazine”. Posing for a Polaroid, wearing oversized sunglasses, a blonde wig, baseball cap and gender non-specific clothing, the scam works.
Soon after, Laura’s manipulation of Savannah increases. She gets Savannah dressed as JT, to meet with photographer, Bruce (David Lawrence Brown). Easily influenced, Savannah gets better at playing JT, assuming the Southern accent that Laura created, and working the socially awkward aspect of JT’s personality. Before long, Laura, playing the part of Speedie, and JT go to the L.A. home of Sasha (Courtney Love), a Hollywood movie producer who wants to make “Sarah” into a movie. Next, they meet with Eva (Diane Kruger), an actress and aspiring filmmaker who wants to direct and star in the movie.
Predictably, it’s only a matter of time before everything begins to unravel. Savannah falls for Eva, but when Savannah discovers that Eva has a boyfriend named Ben (James Jagger), Savannah becomes jealous. Meanwhile, Laura’s Speedie character makes a nuisance of herself, alienating powerful people. Laura and Geoffrey’s relationship is jeopardized. And then, a journalist recognizes Savannah as JT, leading to the exposure of the hoax.
“JT Leroy” belongs to Dern, who embodies what can best be described as the San Francisco vibe. Stewart, who was seemingly born to play LeRoy, is also good, if a bit low energy. Ultimately, moviegoers have to decide whether or not they want to commit their time to a story about extremely unlikeable characters and the people they hurt along the way.