Half way through Justin Kelly’s J T LeRoy, a reporter challenges J T (as played by Kristen Stewart – more of that in a moment) about his identity. “Are you who you say you are?” The response is almost an echo. “And are you who you say you are?” Even though it’s surrounded by others, that’s the question at the heart of the film, and who really knows the answer? After all, if you were called on to prove conclusively that you really are who you say you are, it would be a painstaking business. Most methods of identification aren’t infallible …..
The reporter, of course, is right to sense there’s something not quite right about the J T he’s talking to, even though he’s shouted down by others at the press conference. The film is based on a true story, about how the androgynous Savannah (Stewart) arrives in San Francisco to stay with her musician brother Geoff (Jim Sturgess) and his partner, writer Laura (Laura Dern). None of Laura’s friends realise that she’s written a novel under the pseudonym of J T LeRoy and that it’s become an outrageous success, so much so that she now needs to make J T real, give him a public persona to cope with all the attention. Telephone interviews in a husky voice won’t cut it any more, he’s in demand and the rewards are all too tempting. The result is one of the literary world’s most infamous hoaxes, with Savannah disguising herself as the public J T, taking her and Laura (as her so-called agent Speedy) to Hollywood, into literary circles and, eventually, to the Cannes Film Festival. But who are they really?
We’ve already had one literary hoax movie this year, Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me and there the emphasis was very much on literature. Here, the writing doesn’t get that much of a look-in, because the approach is completely different and the story is easily more outrageous. It’s anchored by Dern and Stewart as radically contrasting characters, but ones that connect nonetheless. Dern is extrovert, party loving and free spirited up to a point, as long as it doesn’t stop her running the show and getting what she wants.
Savannah, on the other hand, is shy, introverted, quiet, awkward in company and none too comfortable about Laura’s idea that she should “become” J T. Yet the two connect, although it’s with Laura in the driving seat, and they use their alter-egos to pursue all the goodies that come with J T’s rising popularity and increasing success – all based on one book. And, for some time, she’s compliant, doing everything she’s told. It’s only when she meets Eva (Diane Kruger) that she starts to question the situation more openly: Savannah falls in love with the actress, it gives her confidence and she starts to spread her wings. And Laura doesn’t like it one little bit.
Don’t go thinking this is purely designed to point an accusatory finger at the nature of Hollywood or to put the two women in the dock. It’s more interested in why the hoax came about, not the how. And, given the two characters, that’s exactly how it should be. In their different ways, they’re fascinating, as are the questions they pose about truth and identity. As the Oscar Wilde quotation at the start points out “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” It certainly isn’t here yet, even though they’ve played a confidence trick on a lot of people, and conned plenty out of money, you sympathise with Savannah for being bludgeoned into the situation. Less so Laura, with all her control-freakery. Even when the hoax is exposed, she refuses to take any responsibility and, inevitably, bounces back yet again.
Stewart and Dern are awesomely impressive as their contrasting characters. Given Stewart’s public image, you can’t help but speculate that her J T is largely based on herself, because the role fits her like a glove and she’s excellent. If anything, the two of them are almost too good as some of the supporting characters, Sturgess in particular, fade into the background and serve very little purpose. It’s a fascinating story, one with a narrative to keep you hooked and ideas to sink your teeth into. Put the two together and, with great performances from Stewart and Dern, this female-led tale of identity is a low-key but high calibre watch.
Freda Cooper | ★★★ 1/2
Biography, Drama | Cert:15| UK, 16 August (2019) | Signature Entertainment | Dir. Justin Kelly | Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern, Jim Sturgess, Diane Kruger, Courtney Love.