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Laura Dern And Kristen Stewart Stun In “JT LeRoy”

Anyone who thinks Kristen Stewart isn’t one of the under-sung actresses of her generation just isn’t paying attention. For years now, Stewart has been doing incredibly interesting work in films that fly largely under the radar. One of these days, it’s going to turn into an Academy Award nomination. Last year, she was buzzed about for Oscar attention with the biopic JT LeRoy. A somewhat mixed reception at the Toronto International Film Festival pushed it back into 2019, erasing the buzz in the process. Well, opening this week, I can vouch for Stewart being excellent in it, with a tremendous turn from Laura Dern as well. The TIFF reviews got this one wrong, plain and simple.

The movie is a biopic of Savannah Knoop (Stewart), who would spend about six years pretending to be a celebrated author by the name of JT LeRoy. The write was merely the created literary persona of Laura Albert (Dern), the girlfriend of Savannah’s brother Geoffrey Knoop (Jim Sturgess). Having just moved to San Francisco, Savannah is introduced to Laura, who’s been pretending to be Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy for years, even getting a book published in the process. She needs a body though, which she quickly recruits in Savannah. Still figuring out who they are, they’re easily swept up in the ruse. Not only does Laura get Savannah’s help, they’re a hit. The persona of JT LeRoy is a sensation, even attracting the attention of an actresses/filmmaker named Eva (Diane Kruger) looking to adapt LeRoy’s novel. Of course, fissures form in Laura’s relationship with Savannah, as mutual resentment forms. It’s a true story, so what ultimately happens is no surprise, but watching the flick, it also feels inevitable. Justin Kelly directs and co-wrote the adaptation with Knoop. Tim Kvasnosky composed the score, while the cinematography is by Bobby Bukowski. Supporting players include Kelvin Harrison Jr., Courtney Love, and more.

First and foremost, Dern and Stewart are outstanding here, giving vivid life to this tale. If elements such as gender fluidity, self identity, and who the real you is get slightly short shrift, the central performances are above and beyond. The former steals numerous scenes with a complex turn, while the latter brings her damaged hypnotic quality to this story perfectly. Both are at the absolute top of their respective games in this picture. Even if the flick is not your cup of tea, it’s hard to argue with how great they are in it. They, quite simply, deliver the goods.

If there’s one real issue with JT LeRoy, it’s that it probably needed a stronger filmmaker to fully execute the vision on hand. Dern and Stewart more than uphold their end of the bargain, though Kelly is more hit or miss on his end. Knoop depicts their story in the screenplay, though Kelly doesn’t quite execute it. The stakes never quite feel appropriate. It’s to Dern and Stewart’s credit that they bring out the characters in the way that they’re able to. Had Knoop co-written with someone else/someone else directed, this may well have been award worthy. Instead, it just has to settle for being a solid movie with the unrealized potential for greatness. Kelly has gone for ambitious material before, especially with James Franco. While this is a step in the right direction, he’s still somewhat flawed as a director.

This weekend, fans of Dern and Stewart (of which the latter has plenty) can dig into a pair of top notch performances when JT LeRoy opens. The film lives and dies with their turns, and they constantly one up each other. Kelly’s filmmaking, and especially his direction, doesn’t keep up with them, but they drag the final product to the finish line. If you’re interested in this story or tend to enjoy either of the actresses and their work, you’ll likely be pleased with what you find. Forget about the bad buzz from TIFF and the Oscar buzz before that. Take it on its own terms and you’ll see that it succeeds way more than it fails…

Be sure to check out JT LeRoy, opening in limited release this Friday!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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