When news broke of the true identity of author Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy folks threw around the word “hoax,” but the person behind the avatar, Laura Albert, hated that her creation was described that way.For her, JT LeRoy was just as real as she was. Other authors over the course of history have long-used pen-names or fake identities to get further in publishing or to be taken more seriously, especially women, so what made Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy different than the Bronte sisters? The line in the sand moment—and this is where the story gets a little weird—is that Albert eventually hired someone to pose as JT LeRoy, which gave him flesh. The person she hired was Savannah Knoop, her sister-in-law. Knoop went on to pose as LeRoy for six years and chronicled the experience in the fascinating 2008 memoir Girl, Boy, Girl: How I Became JT Leroy. Before JT LeRoy was walking the streets as Albert’s “phantom limb,”he was a mere creation of her own mind. Albert struggled for years with mental health problems, frequently calling suicide hotlines, and she found that if she posed as a boy she was taken more seriously. Health counsellors encouraged the facade as it helped give her agency in her own life to funnel all of problems through this creation. In the late 1990s up through the mid-2000s that might seem strange, bordering on personality disorder, but in today’s age of social media, internet message boards, and the flexibility of identity in online spaces creating your own avatar has become more common. For many, the avatar is a merely a transition stage, before changing yourself entirely. It’s a way to get your feet wet before diving into the pool so to speak. In 2010, a full year before I came out as a transgender woman, I changed my name to “Willow” on a message board frequented by cinephiles and no one questioned why. It gave me an outlet to try on an identity without shackling myself to it through a legal name change or any other government consideration of identity. Years later, I would go through that process, but the internet streamlined my ability to figure out who I was, and who I wanted to be. For a certain subset of younger milliennial's and generation Z kids who grew up with things like Twitter and Facebook and the freedom the internet offered, Laura Albert’s story must seem quaint. She even acknowledges that today everyone is doing what she did with JT LeRoy years ago. Now, anyone can be JT LeRoy.
With that knowledge in hand you would think director Justin Kelly would have much to reckon with in a cinematic adaptation of the story of JT LeRoy, but this story struggles with these bigger questions of identity. Comprised of a very game cast of shape-shifters and women who are popular in circles of gay film fanaticism, like Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern, and Courtney Love, the film gets off on the right foot. Everything begins with Savannah Knoop (Kristen Stewart) landing in a new town with a fresh start to be whoever they wanted to be. When they shack up with Laura Albert (played by Laura Dern) and her husband they’re quickly sucked into Laura’s excitable body language and possessive peer pressure. Laura thinks of herself a bit like a genius, but with books deals floating in and gifts from Madonna being sent her way, it’s easy to see why she’d metaphorically get high off of her own supply. Because she’s writing as a boy who has experienced things like sexual assault and gender troubles it was easy for the author to garner sympathy in a way she wasn’t able to when she was a young woman. If she were not painted as such a charlatan, you’d almost feel empathy for her, and Laura Dern gets the complexities of Albert as a person just right. Dern ping pongs back and forth, scene to scene, sometimes letting artifice take over completely, but sometimes something resembling authenticity breaks through Albert’s shell and Dern is incredible in manipulating one in such a way. It’s a performance that feels like the real Laura Albert. In the beginning her energy is intoxicating and Dern plays the character as a cannonball with forward momentum, but also with just enough insecurity bubbling underneath to make it clear that this author is worried she might be a hack. Laura’s taken with the way Savannah looks and nearly immediately pins down their looks as parallel to how she sees her own fantastic creation.
Kristen Stewart is ace casting in the role of Knoop, because she’s frequently reckoned with the way her body appears on camera and tends to queer even straight characters through her own movements and body language. She is an actor of a new generation where questions of non-binary identities are leaking over into the mainstream as an extension of the transgender rights movement. Kristen Stewart identifies as a woman, but her cinematic screen presence is slippery. When placed up against traditional notions of femininity she slumps down into her body, in a way where external signifiers of womanhood don’t fit. She comes from a long line of actors who have this kind of sensibility, including James Dean and Marlon Brando, both of whom were so physically daunting as men that their bodies were seemingly poisoned by toxic masculinity. Think of the scenes where Brando and Dean, explode in agony over things they can’t control, with “Stella!” and “you’re tearing me apart!” respectively becoming their most iconic line readings of all time. John Wayne never shouted. Real men don’t scream, but it’d be hard to argue Dean and Brando aren’t typical fixtures of a widely accepted masculinity—but a new kind of man driven by emotion.
Kristen Stewart never explodes, but she never seems at peace with things other women find comfortable either, and has taken it upon herself to star in movies which stretch the notions of her own identity in cinema. In Personal Shopper (2016) she plays a fashion expert who never dresses extravagantly and when she does she spends all her time in the mirror looking at herself with some level of discomfort. She looks more like a giallo character about to bite the dust than she does someone who is about to take to the runway. And speaking of, in The Runaways (2010) she plays Joan Jett: a woman who was never afraid to say “fuck you” to conventional readings of femininity. Jett didn’t give a damn about her bad reputation and she can be seen singing "Androgynous" alongside trans woman Laura Jane Grace at concerts these days. Gender is never going to be over, but with people like Kristen Stewart being among the biggest stars in the world perhaps it can have a wider net. With a character like JT LeRoy she expands on this very idea by playing a boy who was being played by someone who identifies as non-binary.
Stewart is perfectly cast in the lead role, but she struggles under the weight of a script that doesn’t lend itself to the interiority you would expect from a story like this one. There is one scene where Laura and Savannah talk about gender in a trip across America and it’s one of the few moments where the text of the film reflects back the actor’s intentions. Laura asks Savannah if they’ve ever wanted to “get as far away from their body as possible,” and Savannah replies enthusiastically that they completely understand that idea. Laura’s mostly seducing her in this conversation, but she also strikes a chord with someone who seems to be struggling with some type of gender dysphoria and due to Savannah’s own real life identity as non-binary we know this to be true. Stewart plays it like someone hearing gospel for the first time and hangs on every word. “Find out who the fuck you are” is a real declaration for people who don’t know who the fuck they are and maybe Laura Albert doesn’t know who she is either, because she gets hung up on her own words too. It’s the best scene in the movie, because it’s one of the only times the movie truly understands its own subject both formally and thematically. Here, they are driving across the country figuring out where they’re going while also talking about where they want to go as people.
Where the film truly falters is in its inability to delve deeper into what the scene above hints toward. The scripting problems overshadow what could be a complex examination of identity in an age when identity was set in stone for the most part. Names like David Bowie and Grace Jones get tossed around, but the film does little with what those names imply. Formally a movie of this type needs to have interiority and flexibility in order to truly unleash the complex machinations of forming a brand new identity for oneself, because it is an extremely personal decision to do such a thing. Instead, it’s played more like recent karaoke rags to riches rock biopics like Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) and The Dirt (2019) without a tune to its name. JT LeRoy goes to parties, has a wild time with the press, and eventually falls when the secret is found out. This is the narrative that we already know, and the story presented in the film, but what we don’t know is precisely the question of why an identity like that of JT LeRoy needed to be formed for Laura Albert. That answer is more complicated than the movie is willing to chase after. It is more lacklustre than it needed to be because of that unwillingness to truly explore one of the most fascinating controversies of artistic identity of the twenty-first century.