Three years after Kristen Stewart and Laura Dern both starred in Kelly Reichardt’s elegant 2016 drama “Certain Women,” the powerhouse actresses have reunited, and this time they actually share scenes — quite a few. Unfortunately, their new collaboration, “JT LeRoy,” is uneven, heavy-handed, and entirely one sided in its point of view. Regardless of what went wrong, these two are very good together. The underlying story, with all of its fascinating questions of identity and who gets to tell what story, clearly struck a nerve for both of these thoughtful talents.
Named for the fictional persona at the center of the literary scandal that ensnared everyone from Winona Ryder to Courtney Love, “JT LeRoy” tells the story of Laura Albert’s invention of an HIV-positive, transgender sex worker as her literary avatar, told from the perspective of the androgynous young person she enlisted to play him in public. Based on the memoir by Savannah Knoop, who physically masqueraded for Albert as JT LeRoy, the screenplay was written by Knoop with director Justin Kelly. While the insider perspective is valuable, nothing was ever going to tell the full story of this epic game of pretend. That “JT LeRoy” doesn’t understand that is one of its core misfires.
Dern is excellent (as always) as the cutthroat Albert and her cockney-accented alter ego, Speedie. In her hands, Albert vibrates with a kind of frenetic ambition, manipulating her mark with a mix of maternal concern and sheer force of will. Stewart retreats into herself as Knoop, playing the character as a shy and sensitive youth looking for family and a sense of purpose. It’s a fitting role for her, and another addition to the growing roster of queer characters she has played since coming out.
“JT LeRoy” was directed by Justin Kelly, who co-wrote the screenplay with Knoop. A performance artist who has exhibited at The Whitney and MoMA, Knoop recently began using the gender neutral pronouns they/them/their. Their evolving gender identity informed Stewart’s performance, keeping the actress on her toes.
“Savannah’s gone through an enormous amount of not easily digestible stages,” Stewart said in a recent interview. “I don’t know if we even necessarily have the vocabulary for this.”
In the movie, JT first has a relationship with a man before being seduced by a Hollywood actress named Eva, played by Diane Kruger and widely thought to be based on Asia Argento. Although it becomes clear that Eva is only interested in JT in order to secure the rights to the book, JT falls hard for the beautiful French actress.
“Everything we did in the movie reflected what she was going through at the time. She had a boyfriend…she was feeling more masculine, but also really enjoyed playing with clothing and playing with flamboyance and performance,” said Stewart. She went on to explain why she was using Knoop’s former pronouns, and it’s clear that Knoop’s evolution has informed the way Stewart thinks about gender:
Honestly, she embodies the word queer like no other, and I don’t mean that in strict relation to sexuality. She is truly an other, and it’s been an involved and long journey to get to the place where maybe we’ve always referred to her as she on the movie because that’s how she felt then, and they have now gotten to a point where they are now identifying as they and that’s been a really recent change. … Change doesn’t mean — change is evolution. Change doesn’t mean that you’re now correcting something that you were fucking up before.
Dern, who has two teenage children, added that the next generation is entirely fluid in their understanding of identity.
“Teenagers don’t understand [why] anyone’s even ask[ing] about identity. They’re shocked that anyone needs to answer to anyone else about how they identify,” she said. “Kristen and I both have been learning so much from [Knoop] as a muse, who in this journey has shifted in terms of the language around how she wants to express who she is. Now, how they would express who they are. Because it’s not about what other people are comfortable with, it’s about what feels true to you. I do think it’s a very new day and that’s exciting to look at within these characters.”
Gender is an interesting piece of the puzzle, but it’s not Knoop’s struggle alone. Laura Albert wrote three successful books under the JT LeRoy “avatar,” as she called it. The film portrays her as a striving middle-aged woman who is pragmatic about how the lit world would receive her. While it is written from Knoop’s perspective, Albert has said as much in interviews explaining her motivation.
“On a surface level alone, if it were just — ‘I want my story of abuse and trauma shared with the world.’ As a woman in my forties, I would likely be right that by sharing that story from the perspective of a young man is far more potential for success based on statistics alone, so that’s already fascinating,” said Dern. “And then getting into body shame and being trapped in a body that didn’t feel like her identity.”
“There are many words that are required to describe a person, not just one,” Stewart added. “It’s a process, and…if you really care, it just kind of requires a little patience.”
“JT LeRoy” opens in theaters on April 26 from Universal Pictures.