This week's JT LeRoy marks the latest stage in the cinema's shifting relationship with that sometime literary phenomenon. As with many onlookers, the film world took LeRoy at face value back in 2004 - the year Asia Argento, that lightning rod for controversy, directed herself in The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, her adaptation of LeRoy's hot-potato memoir of life with his prostitute mother. Once the story broke that Deceitful was exactly that - that "Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy" was, in fact, the wholly fictional creation of floundering journo Laura Albert - there was no choice but to recant: hence the 2016 documentary Author: The JT LeRoy Story, which gave Albert the opportunity to explain herself. The new movie, which opens with an Oscar Wilde quote laser-targeted at the denizens of cancel culture ("Truth is rarely pure, and never simple"), offers a notionally more rounded dramatisation of the events Author described, with Laura Dern playing Albert, and Kristen Stewart cast as Savannah Knoop, the spotty, androgynous soul Albert employed to don an Andy Warhol wig and pose as LeRoy in public. Gaps remain in this narrative, however, and the details that have emerged invite multiple interpretations. Three films into its lifecycle, and still nobody seems certain what the JT LeRoy story really represents. Is it some elevating expression of girl power, the handiwork of women doing what they had to do to get noticed? Or is it something gristlier, a potential bone in the throat of the #MeToo movement - women inventing traumas for whatever personal gain the publishing world could provide in the first years of this century? Wilde had it about right, you feel, but that lack of purity and simplicity rather damns JT LeRoy to being a middling, muddled viewing experience: at almost all points, it feels less like a full articulation of this story than an attempt to hawk something up.
The source this time round is Girl Boy Girl, Knoop's 2008 account of how she came to be roped into this three-ring media circus, which allows writer-director Justin Kelly (King Cobra) to fill his frames with the kind of kooky San Francisco types who might have turned up in a Dandy Warhols video of this period. (Inevitably, "Bohemian Like You" can be heard on the soundtrack.) Yet the sketchiness here isn't solely the preserve of Kelly's characters. JT LeRoy suffers from a suicidally rushed first act, bound altogether too closely to the chaotic energy of Dern's Albert. These characters, and their actions, would only begin to make sense if you were aware of the backstory; anybody walking in blind will be driven cuckoo trying to work out who these hipsters are, and why they do what they do. (They might also overlook how Argento has been made over, not terribly subtly or flatteringly, into Diane Kruger's flamboyant Eurostar "Eva Avalon", presumably at the lawyers' request.) Matters take on more shape and purpose once Albert and Knoop hit the literary bigtime, and Kelly realises he's telling the story of an ill-fated grift. Dern and Stewart, on pretty good if not top form, show us first the conspiratorial kinship that brought LeRoy to life, then the gradual erosion of that bond, attributed here to these women's wildly different relationship with reality.
One of the reasons this story may resist conventional adaptation is that the motivation underpinning the drama remains fundamentally opaque. This Albert is a strange, impulsive bird, flapping around in the hope something will take off, and once she and Knoop are up to their necks in the deception, Kelly has nothing much to do save to wheel on a cavalcade of dupes (including, bizarrely enough, actual LeRoy victim Courtney Love as a Hollywood bigshot swayed by a gift of pickled onions) and wait for his heroines' cover to be blown in the third act. The story is backloaded: it has consequences and ramifications up the wazoo - Argento, one of the most prominent Harvey Weinstein accusers, would herself be accused of sexual impropriety around Jimmy Bennett, the young actor she played mother to in The Heart is Deceitful... - but it starts more or less on a whim; something essential is missing to begin with, so we struggle to take the whole as seriously as some did. My feeling remains that this is one of those tales that either says everything about the madness of the world as it was in the early 21st century (and our desperate need to believe in something, anything), or which says nothing very much at all (in that its madness can be confined to its featherbrained architects), and that either way, it may take another decade to get our heads around it: ten years in which we decide once and for all what our relationship to the fake and the real is going to be. The interim conclusion Kelly reaches at the end of this naggingly cursory inquiry is that people are strange, and creative people strangest of all. You may feel as though you've read this somewhere before.
JT LeRoy opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.