BFI Flare LGBTQ+ Film Festival 2019 Review: ‘JT Leroy’ Asks Worthwhile Questions, But Cannot Provide Answers

The human idea of identity is a delicate one, naturally susceptible to fragmentation, fluidity, and misunderstanding. Culture scholars have debated this phenomenon for decades, and JT Leroy engages these issues simply through the nature of its story; if there is a variation between how the outside world views us and how we view ourselves, which of these identities takes precedent? What, morally, do we owe people when we project certain images of ourselves—is it a lie to hide behind a mask, or can our true identity be found in the ways that we present to the outside world? Is our identity internal knowledge, external presentation, or a mix of the two? In JT Leroy, these questions are asked in earnest, but the film never comes to a conclusion, scratching only the surface of a much greater discussion on the queer experience of the self. 

JT Leroy tells the story of a spiderweb of identities: here, a bisexual woman pretends to be a bisexual man who has been created by (and continues to be voiced by) a heterosexual woman. It’s a lot to unpack, and the fact that this is a fictionalised version of a true story adds another layer to the mix, as the face of the titular character is played by a queer woman herself—Kristen Stewart, in a role that seems made for her. Stewart plays Savannah Knoop, a young woman with a shy, stammering presence, who moves in with her brother at the beginning of the film. This is where she meets Laura Alberts, a lively, vaguely annoying artist-type, played wonderfully by Laura Dern. Laura, as an older woman, is sick of being ignored, especially considering she’s technically the bestselling author JT Leroy, and soon ropes Savannah into becoming the face of her pseudonym, a fictitious creation whose past is studded with horrors of poverty, grief and abandonment. Together they bring the entity to life, with Laura crafting Leroy’s words, and Savannah navigating his actions, fooling much of the outside world into believing that he is real. 

An intriguing concept is marred by the film’s poor execution, as JT Leroy falls victim to one of the biggest problems with the biopic: a lack of individualism or artistic interpretation. The story moves statically between each plot point with little flourish or style, a straightforward representation of a tale that is anything but. The question of identity is danced around—Savannah expresses her wish to continue inhabiting JT Leroy’s persona, but the reasoning behind this is never given the full attention such a topic deserves. Equally, Laura’s obvious self-esteem problems are left to bubble beneath the surface, occasionally rising to a petulant tantrum, but never afforded serious consideration. Both characters simply fizzle out, their deep-set issues of personal identity cast aside for a neater, more pedestrian story. 

For the rest of our BFI Flare coverage, click here.

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