TIFF18 Review: JEREMIAH TERMINATOR LEROY (World Premiere) – Alexander Heller-Nicholas

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In any other time, there surely couldn’t be a weird lo-fi queer-leaning biopic co-starring the double whammy of Laura Dern and Kristen Stewart that would be anything less than a total smash hit. Individually, due to hard work, perseverance and undeniable talent, each actor has developed intensely devoted fan bases in both the general mainstream and simultaneously amongst cult film die-hards. Framed with that ever-alluring ‘based on a true story’ chestnut, Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy should be win-win. This is a thoroughly serviceable indie film built around both dense and dazzling performances by Dern and Stewart alike, so this should be a slam dunk, and yet…these are far from ordinary times.

Even a few months before its World Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, the story of Savannah Knoop could have been custom made for the current zeitgeist. Played by Stewart, she is a young woman at the turn of the century who somehow found herself roped into playing enigmatic, eccentric teenage boy and one-time literary darling JT LeRoy in a number of interviews and public appearances, later notoriously revealed to be the pseudonym of author Laura Albert (Dern).

The extraordinary real-life story of public and private personae run amok and the intersection with the creative impulse and deep trauma and abuse was surely primed for retelling in 2018; it was, after all, almost two decades since LeRoy’s novel The Heart is Deceitful Amongst All Things was released in 2000, followed in 2004 by the screen adaptation of the same name. Soon after, the truth about Laura Albert and JT LeRoy was revealed, leaving Knoop somehow caught in the crossfire of the very media public fiasco that followed, with claims of ‘fraud’ rejected vehemently by Albert herself, who insisted that LeRoy was less a pen name than an ‘avatar’ she adopted as part of her own creative practice to work through her own very real and very troubled upbringing.

Jeremiah Terminator Leroy was directed by Justin Kelly, who worked with Knoop in adapting her 2008 autobiography Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT Leroy. Brought to life vividly and with extraordinary empathy and intelligence by Stewart, Knoop’s story feels long overdue its time in the limelight and deserves actors of this quality to assist in the telling of her remarkable tale. With performers of the calibre of Stewart herself and Dern as her sister-in-law, sort-of-friend and semi-nemesis Albert, Kelly brings real love and understanding to Knoop and her frequently absurd situation, and reveals with great heart and thoughtfulness the headspace that might lead a young woman to what for all intents and purposes in retrospect looks like nothing less than a deal with the devil.

And yet, as always, timing is everything. Only weeks before the world premiere of Jeremiah Terminator Leroy, shocking allegations of sexual assault against the director of the screen adaptation of The Heart is Deceitful Amongst All Things Asia Argento were made by then-17-year-old actor Jimmy Bennett (a minor at the time) who played the LeRoy character in that version were made public. This resulted in – amongst other things – Argento’s near-instant excommunication from the #MeToo movement which she had until that point been a central figure in and a public plea by her one-time friend and ally Rose McGowan to take responsibility for her actions and to seek help.

In retrospect, it is unsurprising that the Argento character in Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy is given another name, Ava, played perfectly adequately by Diane Kruger. But watching the film in September 2018 in a packed cinema in Toronto, the elephant in the room – through no fault of the film itself – felt almost suffocating in terms of the sheer enormity of its presence, particularly in the scenes where the film details the seduction of Knoop (in LeRoy ‘drag’) by ‘Ava’ in a clear attempt to secure the film rights for the book. In one scene, visiting the filming location, ‘Ava’ even appears in the famous red bra, bleached hair and leopard print jacket that Argento wore in the film as she played LeRoy’s mother, as well as directing the film.

The total absence in the screening I saw during the Q+A session of any acknowledgement of this inescapably relevant current news story was frankly a difficult one to comprehend: did the audience simply not make the connection, or – as I suspect – are we far too close to the genuinely horrific allegations made about Argento to start publicly discussing the questions that we really need to be asking now? These are questions we more broadly as a culture find difficult to address at the best of times; about how we begin to think through the reality that sometimes people who are abused themselves become abusers.

There is a lot to unpack about Knoop’s own extraordinary story brought to life in Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy about gender, sexuality, and identity. But in late 2018, to untangle this from broader questions surrounding the very difficult figure of ‘Ava’ is challenging and, for many, apparently impossible: despite itself, this film asks far bigger questions about things we can only shudder to imagine.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a multi-award-winning film critic and author who has published nine books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema with an emphasis on gender politics, including the 2020 book ‘1000 Women in Horror, 1898-2018’ which was included on Esquire Magazine’s list of the best 125 books written about Hollywood. Alexandra is a contributing editor at Film International, a columnist at Fangoria, an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, and a member of the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (LA, NYC, London).