September 14, 2018
‘Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy’ Review: Laura Dern & Kristen Stewart Deliver Strong Performances in Lackluster Biopic [TIFF]
The story of JT LeRoy, the best-selling author who never really existed, gets the standard biopic treatment in Justin Kelly‘s unfortunately uninspired Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy. As lacking as this film tends to be, it’s almost salvaged by two remarkable performances from Laura Dern and Kristen Stewart.
In the late 1990s, JT LeRoy was a literary sensation. With his harrowing, autobiographical novels Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, the young author painted a painfully honest portrait of his tumultuous past. The books became best-sellers, movie offers started rolling in, and anyone who was anyone wanted to meet JT LeRoy
There was just one problem. JT LeRoy didn’t exist. He was the creation of Laura Albert, a writer from San Francisco who made up the LeRoy persona and rode it to success. Pseudonyms are nothing new, but Albert took things to the next level. She created an entire life for LeRoy, and would conduct phone interviews in character as him, deepening her voice and affecting a Southern accent. And that wasn’t all – she also pretended to be LeRoy’s manager, a British woman named Speedy.
Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy, the new film from King Cobra director Justin Kelly, isn’t really about Albert, though. Instead, it’s about Savannah Knoop, the young woman Albert roped into playing LeRoy in public. As the film kicks off, JT LeRoy’s popularity is at an all-time-high, and Savannah is moving into her brother’s apartment in San Francisco. Her brother happens to be married to Laura Albert, and Savannah discovers pretty quickly that Laura is actually JT LeRoy – Albert doesn’t exactly hide the secret very well.
Albert takes one look at the shy, diminutive Savannah, and has an epiphany: to fulfill the increasing demands for interviews and live-appearances, Albert hires Savannah to pretend to be the androgynous JT LeRoy. Savannah reluctantly agrees, donning a wig and sunglasses, and finds herself in a precarious position. On one hand, she becomes somewhat addicted to the idea of pretending to be someone else. On the other, Albert is constantly demanding and pushy, prone to wild outbursts and jealousy. As Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy, Savannah becomes more confused and conflicted about the ruse – a lie that keeps growing bigger and bigger until it threatens to blow up in everyone’s faces.
What an incredible scenario this is – a reflection on identity and how people perceive themselves. The story is inherently compelling, and it’s already made for an excellent documentary – Author: The JT LeRoy Story. Unfortunately, as engrossing as all of this is, Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy never quite connects. The fault mostly lis in Kelly’s uninspired direction. King Cobra was well-constructed, full of style and energy. None of that is on display here. Instead, Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy is flat, shot almost entirely in uninspired medium-shots. Kelly also has a penchant for over-relying on montages to get from one section of the film to another. When he’s not using montages and needs to work his way out of a scene, he simply has everything fade to black, bluntly and inelegantly cutting off what was just happening.
Thankfully, Kelly has two sensational actresses front and center. Laura Dern plays Albert, delivering a manic, abrasive performance. Dern manages to make us both dislike Albert while also feeling sympathy for her. When we first meet her, she can’t sit still, and bulldozes over everyone with her words. As the movie progresses, however, we learn more and more about how damaged she is due to trauma from her past. We come to understand why she’s so committed to living a lie.
Kristen Stewart steals the show, though, as the conflicted Savannah. When we first meet her, Stewart’s Savannah is shy and nervous – a trait that translates well onto JT LeRoy’s withdrawn persona. But the more Savannah plays JT, the more confident she grows. Along the way, she find herself drawn to Eva (Diane Kruger), an actress and filmmaker based on real-life actress Asia Argento. Eva wants to adapt Sarah into a film, and she flirts with Savannah, as JT, while the movie deal is being worked out. Herein lies a problem: is Eva really attracted, or is she merely using her charms to lock down the film rights? And if she is really enamored, is she enamored with Savannah herself, or with the fictional JT LeRoy? Complicating matters is the fact that every time Savannah and Eva interact, Laura then calls up Eva and pretends to be JT.
Stewart handles all this confusing duplicity magnificently, portraying Savannah in a near-constant state of uneasy and uncertainty. The more she plays JT, the less she seems to know herself.
Dern and Stewart are so inspiring together that it’s a damn shame the rest of the film can’t match them. I kept waiting for Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy to pick up as it unfolded; to settle into the right groove. It never happened. Instead, Dern and Stewart are forced to carry the entire film on their shoulders. Kruger is quite good as Eva, although at times the character trips into parody mode. Jim Sturgess gets lost in the shuffle as Savannah’s brother/Laura’s husband. And Courtney Love makes a brief impression in an extended cameo as a film producer. But really, this is Dern and Stewart’s show. Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy is worth seeing for them alone. Pity the rest of the film comes up short.
/Film rating: 6.5 out of 10