Based on a true story, Savanah Knoop (Kristen Stewart) is recruited by Laura Albert (Laura Dern) to embody her literary alter ego, JT Leroy. As Savanah assumes the identity of the young male runaway, she soon finds herself conflicted about her relationship with Laura Albert, with actress Eva (Diane Kruger) and with JT. More and more unsure of her identity, Savanah evades exposure
JT Leroy explores the seductive power of completely forging your own identity. Laura finds freedom in assuming the identity of someone she feels the world will take seriously whilst Savanah is finally able to overcome her insecurities by becoming someone else, somebody already respected and loved. The rewards of this dual identity are as natural as it’s drawbacks.
The women share a life. When JT Leroy begins a relationship with Eva, it’s distressing to see the affection passed between the two women. Laura is JT on the phone, Savanah is JT in person. Neither is good at keeping the other informed and so there is a painful jealousy. The plaudits are also unequally shared resulting in further tension. The lie traps them both and there’s a wonderful feeling of claustrophobia that escalates throughout.
Kirstin Stewart is fantastic as the androgynous would-be somebody. She is subdued, internalising much of the pain she experiences, and yet incredibly expressive. Her body language is of someone uncomfortable in her own skin, let alone someone else’s. Much of the true comedy comes from her awkwardness. Laura Dern gives a fun portrayal of the eccentric creative, but it is a very large performance that sometimes becomes kitsch. This is a little at odds with the, admittedly absurd but fairly straight-faced narrative. But she brings life to the character. She’s charismatic and very persuasive.
JT Leroy is a fascinating true story and a really beautiful character study of two women fighting over an identity of which they both want ownership. It’s a familiar narrative but told in an open-hearted and compelling way.