There’s something particularly thrilling about watching characters pull off a big scam (or at least attempt to). Individuals that one shouldn’t quite root for as they use and take advantage of others for their own benefit, but we enjoy doing it anyway, whether in the Ocean’s series, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, American Hustle, or Catch Me If You Can. There’s palpable excitement and fear present as the stakes get higher and higher, authorities close in, and the viewer wonders: will they ultimately be able to pull it off? Justin Kelly’s JT LeRoy has all the basic elements of a good con movie. Costumes, accents and false identities are all utilised here in the characters’ effort to obtain more opportunities and money. The issue is there’s absolutely no suspense or tension here, as if those stakes don’t actually matter.
JT LeRoy is based on a true story, though LeRoy himself is a fabrication. He’s San Francisco author Laura Albert’s (Laura Dern) pen name for a wildly successful novel. She passes this persona off as a real person, and his work as semi-autobiographical. Over phone interviews and e-mails, she casts him as an elusive young man, who was an ex-sex worker and suffered abuse as a child. When Laura meets her young, slight sister-in-law Savannah (Kristen Stewart), she decides it’s time JT finally made a public appearance and has Savannah, in a blonde wig and sunglasses, begin impersonating him at press and networking events, up to the Cannes Film Festival. The hoax begins to fall apart though as it takes its toll on Savannah and reporters begin to question JT’s bizarre appearance and attitude, as well as that of his handler/agent Speedy (Laura in an equally bad wig and atrocious British accent).
Sadly, despite the strange and intriguing nature of this story, the film itself is rather bland and devoid of energy, insight, and passion. There’s little momentum pushing it forward and the pacing is clearly off. By the nature of its subject the film looks at the importance of an author to their work, gender fluidity and presentation, how someone can process their own traumas in the guise of someone else’s, and the ethics of doing so. The film’s biggest failing is that it poses these questions without investigating them. There’s a surface level look at authenticity and gender here, but nothing more.
The cast is the biggest draw to go catch the film, yet their performances sadly don’t much reward that effort. Stewart and Dern are two captivating actresses who always add layers to the parts they play, but there’s simply not much they can do with the writing and direction provided for their roles here.
Stewart’s Savannah is quiet, bumbling, aimless and awkward, and this never really changes. There’s a real opportunity in this story to explore what pretending to be someone else can do to you and how it complicates your identity, but Savannah never seems to struggle much with that conflict at all. Dern has a significantly more fun and varied character to play with. She’s chaotic, lively, brazen, and passionate. But she’s also quite annoying and overbearing, which the film sadly decides to make her chief characteristic, reducing all of the more interesting, complicated, and empathetic layers about her.
It’s truly insane that the events of this film happened, and for so long. With Savannah’s terrible wigs, mumbled and misguided speech, and Laura’s distracting presence and influence, it’s hard to fathom that they fooled anyone, much less the literary community, movie directors, reporters, and celebrities over the course of years. Even more unbelievable though is how director Justin Kelly managed to completely mangle such a crazy, true life tale of a huge magnitude scam, especially when he had such great actresses to work with.
by Jennifer Verzuh
Jennifer Verzuh is a writer who’s spent the past year and a half traveling across the US working at film festivals after graduating college, where she studied literature and film production. Some of her favorite movies are Carol, Ida, Jackie & Nashville. You can follow her on Twitter at @20thcenturywmn or letterboxd.