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J.T. LeRoy

Movie review by
Joyce Slaton, Common Sense Media
J.T. LeRoy Movie Poster Image
Fascinating true story hooks into gender identity issues.
  • R
  • 2019
  • 108 minutes

Parents say

age 18+
Based on 1 review

Kids say

No reviews yetAdd your rating

A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Complex ideas about identity and sexuality are at play here; viewers may disagree about whether Laura/Savannah/J.T.'s actions were necessary and fair. Messages about gender are mixed and sometimes regressive, like when Laura tells a man to "prove" his masculinity by exposing himself. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

The two main characters, Laura and Savannah, are both complicated people who are somewhat confused about who they are and who they should be; both find putting on a persona to be liberating and lucrative. They're depicted sympathetically, so viewers understand that they're troubled, not just greedy or attention-seeking. Both struggle with eating disorders, with Savannah afraid of anything that will make "curves" on her body, and Laura, who's lost a significant amount of weight, alternately starving and binging. A trans character is played by a non-trans actor, which some find problematic. 

Violence
Sex

Sexual identity and expression are at the center of this drama, but sex is mostly implied rather than shown. Still, expect same- and opposite-sex kissing and images of clothing coming off, bodies moving together, a hand reaching into someone's pants, and a woman moving rhythmically on top of a man while viewers hear moans and sighs. Breasts are briefly visible in a non-sexual context: Savannah binds her chest to appear more masculine. Laura does phone sex work, which she talks about in the abstract, and viewers hear brief conversations that seem sexual about power and J.T.'s (imaginary) "boner." J.T. LeRoy was supposedly a sex worker; we hear obliquely about this imaginary sex work. 

Language

Language includes "f--k," "f---ing," "s--t," "bulls--t," "goddammit," "boner," and "c--k." 

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Adults drink at parties and restaurants; one character is scolded for drinking too much (lest they reveal a secret) but doesn't necessarily look or act drunk. A partygoer smokes a joint in a brief scene. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that J.T. LeRoy is based on the true story of a literary persona invented by two troubled people that turned into a scandal when the ruse was revealed in 2005. It's based on a memoir by one of the participants, Savannah Knoop (here played by Kristen Stewart). In the book, Knoop wrote openly about her gender identity, though the movie isn't as clear on whether she's trans or not, and the character is played by a non-trans actor. Viewers see her enjoying a sexual relationship with a woman, as well as the pleasure she gets from posing as a male. In one scene, she binds her breasts, and they're briefly visible. The movie tackles many complex ideas about identity and sexuality, some of which can be seen as regressive, as when a character tells a male reporter to expose himself to "prove" his masculinity. But in other scenes, Knoop-as-LeRoy affirms their right to be anything they want to be. Sex is represented by kissing (both same- and opposite-sex), followed by bodies moving rhythmically and quick, non-explicit shots of body parts while actors moan and sigh. Frequent cursing includes "f--k," "s--t," "bulls--t," and more, along with words like "boner" and "c--k." A character smokes a joint, and adults drink socially. Sex work is frequently referred to: One character works as a phone sex operator, and a book is about an underage sex worker who plies their trade at truck stops. Two characters have eating disorders: one barely eats, the other alternately binges and starves.  

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What's the story?

The literary world was shocked in 2005 when it was revealed that J.T. LEROY -- supposedly a young transgender former sex worker who authored the best-selling semi-autographical book Sarah -- wasn't actually a real person. Instead, LeRoy was the creation of two people: Laura Albert (Laura Dern), who actually wrote LeRoy's books, and Savannah Knoop (Kristen Stewart), who played LeRoy in public, dressed in gender-neutral clothing, sunglasses, and a blonde wig. Together the pair managed to fool celebrities like Winona Ryder, Madonna, and Bono and institutions such as the Cannes Film Festival, Vanity Fair, and Interview magazine. But when questions about LeRoy's identity won't stop coming -- and can't be easily answered -- the scheme comes tumbling down. 

Is it any good?

The true story this biopic is based on has seamy tabloid appeal, but the movie digs deeper to show how two troubled people temporarily found solutions to their problems through their ruse. More than a decade after the LeRoy scandal originally broke, stories of gender identity struggles are relatively common -- but in 2005, the public assumed that Knoop and Albert were merely con artists who were trying to be something they weren't in order to gain fame, attention, and money. As viewers soon realize in this sympathetic portrayal, they were, in fact, people who genuinely wished to transcend both their problematic bodies and their lives. "Warhol, Ziggy Stardust, Grace Jones," says Albert dreamily, naming performers with outrageous stage personas. "What if you wake up this morning and say 'I want to be somebody else?' That's what they did." Revelations of sexual abuse and trauma in Albert's background are hazily referred to, complicating that character's narrative. 

Knoop, meanwhile, is more interested in extricating herself from a body that she refuses to feed, lest she gain "curves" (Girl Boy Girl, Knoop's memoir on which this movie is based, candidly discusses the eating disorders both Albert and Knoop suffer from). She also finds unexpected fulfillment in pretending to be male. "Technically we're lying," she muses to her brother. "But it feels like a performance. And I'm so compelled to do it," she says, likening her new J.T. obsession to the joy he feels in making music. Knoop has been waiting for these feelings of contentment and rightness for so long -- it's only in binding her breasts and being accepted as male that she starts to experience them. Seeing the pleasure that Knoop and Albert take in their joint success is exciting -- and nerve-wracking, as viewers know it won't last. The relationship between the two soon curdles, with Albert jealous that she's not getting the in-person adulation Knoop garners and Knoop furious that Albert doesn't give her due credit for J.T.'s existence. Watching Albert steam under her fire-engine red wig as she pretends to be LeRoy's friend/handler "Speedie," ignored while Knoop is fawned over, viewers know that J.T. can't last. The magic of J.T. LeRoy is that it somehow makes you wish he could have gone on even just a bit longer.  

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how J.T. LeRoy portrays Savannah and Laura's sense that their bodies don't match their inner selves. What part did gender identity play in each character's struggle? What about weight and body image? What was the significance of trauma in Laura's background? 

  • Movies about mistaken identity or what happens when someone pretends to be someone else are relatively common. What movies with this setup can you name? How is J.T. LeRoy similar to or different from other takes on this idea?

  • J.T. LeRoy is based on a true story about real people. Familiarize yourself with the real story. What, if anything, did the filmmakers leave out of the story? Why do you think they made these changes? Would it surprise you to know that Laura Albert and Geoffrey Knoop had a son who lived and traveled with his parents during the time period depicted by this movie? Why would that have been left out of the movie? 

Movie details

For kids who love dramas

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