Based on Savannah Knoop’s memoir Girl Boy Girl, director Justin Kelly’s latest offering tells the astonishing (partially) true story of Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy, a literary persona invented by writer Laura Albert (Laura Dern).
To pull off the ruse, Albert convinced Knoop (Kristen Stewart) to play ‘JT’ in public. Albert later claim that JT LeRoy “doesn’t exist, but he lives”, and Kelly uses this notion to explore the ways that all identity is in some way constructed. JT is surely the role Stewart was born to play. Taciturn, awkwardly mumbling and androgynous, JT mirrors the public persona that Stewart has herself cultivated in her post-Twilight career. It’s truly fascinating to witness Stewart first perform as the naive, likable Knoop, and the as the affected, aloof LeRoy.
Stewart, Knoop and LeRoy – all distinct identities, yet all stemming from the same persona. In one of the film’s most quietly brilliant images, there’s a shot of a huge TV screen at the Cannes film festival, with the now-celebrity JT on the red carpet. It takes a second to register that we’re looking at an image of an image, of a performance of a performance, like multiple layers of simulacra stacked on top each other.
Our first encounter of the author is as JT. We hear her voice from behind a closed-door, conducting a phone interview with a publicist. As with Savannah, it’s always difficult to see where JT begins and Laura ends – and it times Dern plays Laura as if she is in love with JT. In a sense, she is in a relationship with him – for Laura whether or not JT really exists as flesh and blood is moot – for the author and her devoted readers ‘his’ novels have an emotional and symbolic truth that surely transcend the literally corporeal. Those familiar with the ‘true’ story may be disappointed that the less-than-happy ending of the real story – one which involved lawsuits over fraud – is glossed over.
However, the film’s biggest weakness is its reluctance to interrogate the personas of its supporting characters. Surely the explicitly fraudulent identities of Laura and Savannah draw attention to the more subtly cultivated identities of everyone else around them? But both Sav’s brother-in-law Geoffrey (Jim Sturgess), her boyfriend Sean (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), and indeed Diane Kruger’s film director Eva, are presented at face value. Ultimately, it’s left to us to decide how far JT’s performative identity is an extension of the selves that we all construct for ourselves.
The Toronto International Film Festival 2018 takes place from 6-16 September.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell