Kristen Stewart’s performance in JT LeRoy is no hoax

It's another literary hoax film based on a true story but the great cast means JT LeRoy deserves to be noticed

Many words have been penned, in the post-Twilight era, about how bold the subsequent acting choices have been of that franchise’s leading man, Robert Pattinson. Decisions that have led to him being cast as the new Batman in Warner Bros’ latest big screen reboot for the Dark Knight.

Yet the Twilight saga’s other key lead, Kristen Stewart, has arguably been just as, if not even more, ambitious. She’s taken on a bunch of risky, daring films that haven’t always worked, yet have demonstrated her curiosity, her range, and her sheer acting talent. She’s courted another such role in the film JT LeRoy, a not-entirely-successful feature, that nonetheless she gifts another committed, compelling performance to.

The film is based on the true story of Savannah Knoop (played by Stewart in the movie), who spent six years of her life pretending to be the author Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy. Said author was actually a pen name for her sister-in-law Laura (played in the movie by Laura Dern), who found herself under increasing pressure to bring LeRoy out into the world. Laura thus persuaded Savannah to take on the public persona of LeRoy for his public appearances and events, and it’s a tale that’s since been recounted in both book and documentary feature form.

What this film from director and screenwriter Justin Kelly brings is a different storytelling perspective from its forerunners. The narrative here is from Knoop’s point of view (it’s adapted from her memoir), and we see how Savannah is manipulated by Laura, then gradually adapts to the public mask that the persona of LeRoy offers. Moreover, how Knoop becomes addicted to it. All the while, the larger hoax is working, as the wider world buys that Knoop is indeed LeRoy. Under that public sheen, there are relationships tested, and a real sense of unease about how Laura is
using Knoop.

The film gets its UK release at the end of a small run of literary hoax films, and it’s the quietest and least showy of them. Can You Ever Forgive Me?, starring Melissa McCarthy and Richard E Grant, is by far the most accessible and most high-profile, with Keira Knightley’s title-role turn in Colette not far behind. And in truth, both edge this one out. As interesting as the character studies you get here are, the narrative itself is bumpy, not least in a denouement that seems to suddenly zip along as if the bell has just rung and time is up. While it deserves to be watched too, it’s hard to make a compelling case – outside of supporting productions that go outside the norm – to watch it on a cinema screen.

There are real merits to JT LeRoy the film though, primarily two lead performances that are bold and interesting. Dern in particular is outstanding as the manipulative Laura, whilst Stewart sinks herself wholeheartedly into a taxing character, the kind it’s rare to see three-dimensionally played on the big screen. In fact, themes of identity and presenting a different character to the world are welcome too. It’s just a pity that here, the film itself feels a little flat – it presents and tells the story but never feels that it’s going that deeply into it.

JT LeRoy is in cinemas from August 16. Simon Brew is editor of Film Stories and Film Stories Junior magazines