The JT Leroy saga is readymade for the movies, and two years ago it gave birth to Jeff Feuerzeig’s documentary “Author: The JT Leroy Story.” That provided a fascinating overview of extensive scheme by Bay Area author Laura Albert, who wrote under the nom de plume of the fictional Leroy and gave him a backstory, hoodwinking fans all over the world by pretending that (s)he was a former teen prostitute with prodigal talent.
Albert pulled it off for years, pretending to be Leroy on the phone while sending her androgynous sister-in-law Savannah Knoop to play the character in public. But while “Author” explores the eccentric Albert’s identity crisis in her own words, it relegated Knoop to a supporting character. Writer-director Justin Kelly’s “Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy” puts her front and center, bringing an intriguing new angle on the bizarre literary con as we see Knoop being forced into playing a character more exciting than herself.
Based on Knoop’s memoir, the movie’s ace in the hole is Kristen Stewart as its lead, inhabiting the genderqueer character with a credible shyness and curiosity that suits the actress’ strengths; she’s complemented by an energetic Laura Dern as a dead-ringer for Albert. While Kelly’s faithful dramatization doesn’t offer a lot of fresh insights, and fizzles by the end, it remains an involving snapshot of two women grappling with their private and public personas until they collide.
Kelly is a natural fit for this material. His underrated debut “I Am Michael” focused on real-life gay activist-turned-Christian pastor Michael Glatze, and “Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy” focuses on a similar case of people uncomfortable in their own skin. When Knoop first shows up in Albert’s life, she’s already deep into her writing life as JT Leroy, with her musician husband Geoff (a fine, understated Jim Sturgess) begrudgingly a part of the scam. Albert recognizes that she limits the potential for JT by keeping the character to a voice on the phone, and coaxes Knoop into joining the facade with ease.
Their initial attempts to bring JT into real world are compelling as these actors excel at inhabiting their roles on several levels at once. “I’m really good at pretending to be a feral 19-year-old street kid,” Knoop says to Albert, who plays JT’s exuberant British manager when the pair go on a photo shoot. “That’s not weird, right?”
Of course, everything about the situation is exactly that — from Albert’s excitement over the expansion of an increasingly risky plan to the awkward blond wig that Knoop wears when she’s in character. Knoop goes from being the custodian of Albert’s creation to developing her own sense of ownership. For a while, Kelly generates a remarkable degree of intrigue as Tim Kvavnosky’s high-pitch score injects the scenario with an aura of mystery. The movie, which opens with the Oscar Wilde quote that “the truth is never pure and rarely simple,” explores that notion as both women realize they’ve created a real character stuck between two vessels. Stewart remains a compelling, enigmatic screen presence, but she’s well served by her veteran co-star. While technically a supporting character, Dern often steals the show, relishing the opportunity to shift between a trio of personalities to darkly comic effect. That’s appropriate in a movie all about the perils of seeking attention.
The drama becomes less engaging as the story grows busier, with Diane Kruger surfacing as Eva, a not-so-thinly-veiled riff on Asia Argento. The actor-director is keen on coaxing JT into giving her the rights to adapt “The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things,” which Argento did shortly before a New York magazine article outed JT as Albert and the plan came crashing down. (The timing of “Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy” has the unfortunate tarnish of arriving shortly after news broke that “Heart” star Jimmy Bennett allegedly had sex with Argento while he was underage; Argento has denied the charges.)
By hinging the stakes on this scenario while reducing the journalistic exposé to the final minutes, “Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy” downgrades the traumatic impact of the media attention for both Albert and Knoop to a coda; as a result, the story has a lopsided quality, lingering in redundant scenes of Knoop playing JT — while Albert grows envious — and lessening the dramatic downfall for everyone involved.
Nevertheless, Stewart is captivating in a challenging role that requires her to juggle several identities at once. While developing a romance with a guy she meets in her day job (“It Comes at Night” breakout Kelvin Harrison Jr.), Knoop also falls in love with Eva, inadvertently constructing a love triangle that puts her fluid sexuality to a complicated test. The meta qualities of watching Stewart tackle this as she moves further away from the straight-laced roles that defined her career before she came out sit well with a movie about a thorny coming out process. (The movie’s meta qualities extend to the stunt casting of Courtney Love, who was hoodwinked by Albert herself, in a fleeting supporting role.) Kelly’s screenplay is especially adroit at investing the fresh desires that Knoop uncovers in the midst of her role playing, and why she struggles to let it go. Arguing with her boyfriend about why she should keep up with the game, he tells her, “You sound like an addict.” At its best, “Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy” magnifies the impulse behind this obsessive tendency to embrace a personality beyond one’s self.
The movie culminates with a trip to the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, where “Heart” premiered a matter of months before Albert and Knoop were exposed. As Kelly brings the story to a tidy completion, it manages to leave open the question of whether Albert — now a celebrity in her own right — got what she wanted all along. But by handing the spotlight to Knoop, it makes that final mystery less relevant. “Author” remains the superior chronicle of the JT Leroy story, but “Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy” contains the tantalizing suggestion that it wasn’t Albert’s story to tell in the first place.
“Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy” premieres as the closing night selection of the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.