In the late 1990s a book was published called Sarah; a memoir by a ‘lot lizard’, the son of the truck stop hooker of the title. This lightning-rod tale of child abuse and growing up in the most deprived circumstances – the child was pimped out as a kind of ‘lady boy’ – proved to be wildly successful touching readers in unexpected ways. The book’s fans (Hollywood stars and troubled teens alike) found solace, if not catharsis, in the story of betrayal, deprivation and a victim/survivor overcoming the worst of starts in life.

The real story of JT LeRoy was even more surprising. Suspicions were raised over the reluctance of the author to make public appearances. Was this some literary hoax or just a publicity gimmick? It turned out that the shy JT did not exist. In fact the book was a work of imagination written by San Francisco-based Laura Albert who had grown up in care and was troubled herself, but the JT story was simply not hers. In order to feed the media interest in the bestseller Laura got her young sister-in-law Savannah Knoop to dress up in a blonde wig and dark glasses for interviews and photo shoots.

The film opens with a white on black title screen, a quote from Wilde: “the truth is rarely pure and never simple.” Ain’t that the truth.

Justin Kelly’s movie dramatizes the tale with Laura Dern playing Albert as a bohemian flake, manipulative and needy. Kristen Stewart is the sister-in-law who is talked (reluctantly at first) into impersonating the author and looking like the bastard offspring of Michael Jackson and Andy Warhol. When movie star Eva (Diane Kruger) buys the film rights to Sarah and befriends the man/ boy (the bisexual Savannah dressed up as JT) there’s a brief clinch between the two. (Courtney Love appears all too briefly as one of the celebs who championed JT, as the actress did in real life.)

Savannah is totally seduced by the first-class flights and red carpet appearances in Cannes, a world away from her dreary waitressing. It’s astonishing that nobody twigged to the six-year-long ruse before they did.

It seems like a very 21st-century story: fakery, PR hype, famous-for-being-famous, enhanced reality, gender fluidity, identity politics, celebrity mania, child abuse, avatars, grooming…

Kelly’s direction keeps the compelling and literate script on track as scenes switch from sunny high key to acid and sombre,  mirroring manic Laura’s mood swings. The playing of the two leads is superb. Dern is demonically manipulative and knowing, spouting New-Age gobbledygook as if it had been handed down on tablets of stone. If only there had been more about Albert’s troubles to help viewers understand the genesis of the LeRoy story. Her “beautiful friend” laps up the attention, totally tantalised by fame. Stewart oozes youthful angst as the gamine ingénue not quite in touch with her feelings or infatuations.

Available in cinemas and on VOD from Fri 16 Aug 2019