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JT Leroy

Year: 2018
Production Co: Black Leather Jacket
Director: Justin Kelly
Writer: Justin Kelly
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Laura Derk, Diane Kruger, Jim Sturgess, Courtney Love

If there are two things movie producers, screenwriters and directors love, it's 1) writers and 2) con artists who go much farther than they imagined in having the whole world fooled.

There are more movies about writers than you can shake a stick at, but the latter is a top-heavy list as well with Catch Me If You Can, The Informant!, The Wizard of Lies, Margin Call, The Big Short, Big Eyes and Orson Welles' quasi-documentary F for Fake to name a few. Mark Wahlberg is even producing a movie based on the true story of a security guard's McDonald's Monopoly game slips racket where he defrauded millions for himself and his friends.

So it's no wonder the genre that brings writers and fraudsters together is a thing. The most recent example was Sam Taylor-Johnson's A Million Little Pieces, an adaptation of James Frey's notorious memoir which the author had to admit was made up in front of Oprah and her audience of millions.

But the standout is Hoax, the 2006 drama about Clifford Irving (Richard Gere), the author who produced a 1972 autobiography of then-recluse Howard Hughes, commanding a huge advance and a wave of public interest before Hughes took part in a telephone press conference to tell the media he'd never met Irving, revealing that Irving had made the whole thing up.

For any producer or production company who wants to make a literary fraud drama, there are rich pickings. The infamous Hitler Diaries published in 1983 were proven to be fake, and British/Australian author Helen Darville caused a literary scandal in 1995 when her Miles Franklin-winning book The Hand That Signed the Paper, which she'd said was based on her Ukrainian family amid Stalin's purges, was exposed as complete fiction.

Amid those more famous cases you might not know is the story of JT Leroy, the teenage wunderkind who wrote about his childhood of poverty and abuse in the 1990s. Invented by ditzy, hippyish Laura (Laura Dern), Leroy was actually Savannah Knoop, the younger sister of Laura's musician boyfriend Geoff (Jim Sturgess), dressed in heavy disguise for public appearances.

When Savannah arrives in Bohemian San Francisco, she falls in love with the radical and alternative culture and puts down roots. Pretty soon, Laura finally realises literary success writing under the pseudonym JT Leroy, a persona she made up calling suicide hotlines as a kid just so she had someone to talk to about her own history of abuse and abandonment.

The problem is that as JT gets more famous, the public and press demand to see and talk to him more so on a lark, Savannah agrees to don a wig and dark glasses and pose as the author for the odd appearance, Laura adopting the character of JT's prickly, officious British assistant and publicist.

If you've seen any movie about a con artist you'll know things go waaaaay too far. Laura doesn't want the bubble of adulation to burst as JT is invited to bigger and better places – including being flown to Hollywood to meet with a producer who wants to make the movie of his life (Courtney Love). But Savannah is increasingly nervous. For awhile all she needs to do is stand behind a microphone and mumble a few things at an audience, playing the painfully shy neophyte. But soon big international press conferences beckon, and Savannah's not sure she can keep it up.

But while Laura is riding a gravy train to money and fame, one thing keeps Savannah hooked on the scam, and that's the presence of beautiful actress Eva (Diane Kruger), in the mix to direct the story of JT's life. Drawn to the glamourous movie star, the shy young gay woman is entranced, wanting and not wanting the sham to end in equal measure.

But it can only go one way, and that's to crash badly. With Geoff as the voice of reason in one ear and the increasingly shrill and needy Laura in the other, Savannah doesn't know which way to turn.

While it's an interesting tale, if it wasn't a true story you'd think it was a bit of a stretch. Would nobody really figure out it's a 20something woman rather than a teenage boy in all those public appearances and photo spreads, no matter how under wraps Savannah is kept?

And Because Eva responds to JT as much as the other way around only without the dark glasses and silly hats, she obviously knows Savannah is no teenage boy. Is she supposed to be in on the scam somehow, or is she the only one who doesn't know JT Leroy was supposed to be male? In portraying their relationship, the script by writer/director Justin Kelly doesn't make enough sense.

Dern can do this kind of thing standing on her head (although her cockney accent wobbles badly), and even though the 60s lovechild character of Laura is frankly irritating for half of the movie, Dern is too smart an actor to simply stay there, letting Laura's everything-is-beautiful countenance slip just enough when her self-centeredness is threatened. Dern's performance gives the character real development and her monologue in the final few minutes at a bookstore reading when the whole thing has been exposed and blown over are sublime.

Kristen Stewart, by contrast, has never been a great actor, but she more tham makes up for it by the way she's parleyed her Twilight cachet into a series of interesting role choices, whether it's a soldier who finds her soul in the enemy (Camp X-Ray) or the put-upon assistant to a famous actress (Clouds of Sils Maria). Even though you can see Stewart aiming above her abilities, she's constantly trying to stretch herself.

If you're looking for deeper themes you might spot (or project) some about the way we all play roles for the benefit of society or about how most of us fantasise about being someone else but rarely get the chance, maybe about how ready we are to buy into tall tales if they enrapture us sufficiently, but on the surface it's just the biopic of the incident.

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