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Fake It Till You Make It

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Allen Fraser/BFI Flare 2019

MOVIE REVIEW
J. T. LeRoy (2019)

Finally, Kristen Stewart gets a part that makes her happy. Ms. Stewart is notorious for her discomfort with the fame that has been the result of her acting talent – look at the photos of her barely hiding her misery on any red carpet. This feeling is the entire point of her character, Savannah, in “J. T. Leroy,” an inspired-by-true-events story of a famous literary hoax that captivated America last decade. The hoax is revealed right at the start. What the movie explores is why the characters needed to do it.

Savannah’s brother Geoffrey (Jim Sturgess, in a thankless part that he is as always very good in) is super excited that she’s finally left their small town to move in with him and his wife, Laura (Laura Dern), in 2001 San Francisco. (Depicting a middle-class precariat in San Francisco is becoming so difficult as the city gentrifies almost past belief that cinema’s attempts to do so are a genre on its own.) Laura works as a phone-sex operator, writes songs with Jim for their half-hearted band, and has a secret side gig as author J. T. Leroy, a young man who’s written two novels about his disturbingly traumatic childhoods. Ms. Dern is also perfect as a woman whose contemptuous intelligence has kind of gotten away from her. It’s never made explicit that misogyny is the reason why Laura’s male persona has found the literary success she never did writing under her true name. Instead, we hear many stories of Laura’s own upsetting childhood, and the friends she made in the dark corners children without resources often find themselves in to survive. J. T. Leroy’s success is such that Laura realizes hiding behind her telephone is no longer an option. Rather than own up to it, she convinces Savannah – whose discomfort with her female body is dealt with only glancingly – to put on some baggy clothes and sunglasses and act the part of J. T. in public.

Here is where the movie begins to fracture, which is partially due to the fact that the real Savannah Knoop co-wrote the screenplay with director Justin Kelly based on her own memoir of these events. There are some scores being settled here. And many of the questions raised in the audience’s minds are never fully addressed. Mainly: Laura, as J. T., handles all the talking over the phone to organize the many events we see happening, up to and including selling the screen rights for one of the books to Eva (Diane Kruger, whose beauty is so distracting it once again almost overshadows her skills as an actress), a “European” actress who sees the book as her tickets into a career move as a director. Savannah, as J. T., is sent to all these public events with no instruction or interference from Laura or Geoffrey whatsoever, even though they are both also always there but using different personae. As things progress, it becomes increasingly difficult to believe that.

What is interesting to note is that the characters are willing to discuss body dysmorphia issues, play with transgender issues, bind their breasts and in all other ways discuss the issues of their discomfort with their female bodies instead of even looking at the main issue here: It’s a man’s world, and women are never treated fairly in it. The backing that J. T. gets, from wealthy supporters such as Sasha (Courtney Love), is emotional and financial luxury that has never been shown to Laura for herself. Savannah appears to only truly be happy when she is masquerading as J. T., which is why she goes along with it, but any other solutions to whatever problems she might have are simply ignored. Poor old Geoffrey, who loves these two women and is always there in the background, is barely even given the opportunity to wonder what he hath wrought by introducing them. Savannah’s boyfriend Sean (Kelvin Harrison Jr., in another thankless part – but how refreshing it is to see a man lying around semi-clad in bed offering life advice to his partner instead of vice versa) is the only one who isn’t impressed. He’s also the only black person in the movie, so it’s not surprising he has a smarter take on the trust and identity issues in all this.

But all of these hot takes don’t even add up to a cup of hot tea. Everything just kind of fizzles away, with no epiphanies or apologies – even the major confrontation at what should have been the pinnacle of everyone’s success is done through half-truths and squirmy evasions. The main argument as shown also pretty much misses the point; well, the point as the audience sees it (the hoax) instead of how the characters see it (their feelings for each other). Talk about not seeing the forest for the trees. But of course that’s often how things are from the inside; sometimes it takes someone else to figure out what’s really going on.

It’s a shame that Mr. Kelly couldn’t slightly change the movie’s narrative, but better this than no movie at all. We do seem to be in a moment where the main reaction to the world’s huge political problems is to focus only on the personal, such as body, sex, gender, how people express themselves with those tools and how other people are very keen to police those expressions. But most people seem to do these things without understanding that those choices – and our reactions to the choices of others – are exceptionally political. In pretending that everything we do is a purely individual choice not shaped by our circumstances at all, we enable those people who can see the forest to stand back and let all the trees chop each other down.

And is that really the best we can do? Especially for the real kids who are like J. T. Leroy, who are abused and violated before being discarded? A smarter story should have remembered, sometimes, to look out as well as in. When you’re not feeling comfortable, it should be a big red flag that something is really wrong.

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