The Death and Life of John F. Donovan
Starring Kit Harington, Jacob Tremblay, Natalie Portman, Susan Sarandon, Thandie Newton, Kathy Bates, Ben Schnetzer, Sarah Gadon, Emily Hampshire, Jared Keeso
The Death and Life of John F. Donovan is arguably one of the most highly anticipated debuts at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. Director Xavier Dolan (It’s Only the End of the World, Mommy) has achieved auteur status and he’s not even 30 years old yet. The Death and Life of John F. Donovan is the French/Canadian filmmakers first English language film behind the camera; he also appears on screen in Boy Erased. Originally slated for Cannes, Dolan pulled the film and cut Jessica Chastain’s character from the movie, trimming his four-hour version down to a little over two. Friends Chastain and Dolan will appear on screen together next year in horror sequel It: Chapter Two. Dolan, who has won 8 different prizes from the Cannes film festival, rarely gets American distribution deals for his often divisive and controversial films. ‘Donovan’ doesn’t feel like other movies in his repertoire, it’s bigger, with a celebrity cast, but it juggles too many narratives and storylines.
John F. Donovan (Harrington) is one of the biggest television and movie stars in America. Fans chase after him, men want to be like him and the women want to be with him. Child actor Rupert Turner (Tremblay) idolizes Donovan with posters and an obsession with the actor’s superhero series. Single mom Sam Turner (Portman) doesn’t encourage the obsession, but she doesn’t discourage it either. Rupert, who is often bullied at school because of his size and behavior, writes the movie star a letter. A surprising personal reply changes Rupert’s life, and the two begin correspondence in secret that often contain intimate information about each other. Donovan, struggling with his sexual identity, confides in his 11-year-old pen pal until the letters are stolen and the secret gets out, which causes a PR nightmare and an emotional breakdown.
Harrington is a perfect choice for what Dolan is trying to accomplish and it's the most demanding and unfamiliar role in the brooding actor's short film career.
‘Donovan’ includes many of the same themes present in Dolan’s other films. He deals with questions of sexuality, mother/son relationships, and Dolan exploring his own feelings about the effect celebrity has on those themes. Dolan modeled Game of Thrones icon Harrington into a version of himself, complete with wardrobe items from past films. Harrington is a perfect choice for what Dolan is trying to accomplish and it’s the most demanding and unfamiliar role in the brooding actor’s short film career. Tremblay (Room) is also very good as the starry-eyed fan who makes you believe all his hopes and dreams rely on meeting this one actor, as if their destinies are tied together. Portman (Vox Lux) has a difficult role to play, she isn’t given much screen time to flesh out this mom, who is both protective and clueless in equal parts.
With so many characters already in very limited roles, it’s hard to imagine where Chastain would have fit (she was portraying a villainous reporter supposedly). The third point of view comes from adult Rupert (Ben Schnetzer), telling his heartbreaking story to a disinterested journalist (Newton) assigned to cover his best-selling tell all book. The film suffers from too much framing (story in a story) going on which deflates many of the film’s emotional moments. Dolan is trying to comment on the devastating effects of celebrity and the loss of privacy when you’re in the public eye. It feels a bit implausible that an actor would be troubled by his homosexuality to this degree considering the story takes place between 2006 and 2017. Dolan is saying a lot here, but just can’t seem to weave all of the different ideas and subjects into a cohesive film. It hit like a thud at TIFF, some calling it the worst of the festival and almost everyone in agreement that it’s his weakest film. One of the most genuine moments that feel truly “Dolan” is Harrington in a bubble bath singing Lifehouse’s “Hanging by a Moment” at the top of his lungs with brother and mother having family time.
Dolan’s troubled ‘Donovan’ film stumbles and eventually falls into something that doesn’t represent the filmmaker's other prolific works.