Hidden among more than 250 movies screening at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, there’s one — well-written, relatable, and wonderfully of-the-moment — in which a mom, fed up at last with her child’s unremitting narcissism, snaps, “Not everything’s about you,” adding that it’s OK to be selfish in your 20s, but it stops being cute when you turn 30. Xavier Dolan’s “The Death and Life of John F. Donovan” is not that movie, although its director, who is 29, might benefit from seeing that other, better Toronto film, “The Weekend,” which contains the aforementioned scene, and whose central lesson he would do well to absorb: Maturity comes in realizing that you are not the center of the universe.
A work of stunning technique eclipsed by its increasingly jaw-dropping solipsism, “Death and Life” — or “How Deep Into Xavier Dolan’s Navel Dare We Gaze?” — may as well be preaching the opposite message: It turns the tragedy of a closeted A-list celebrity’s overdose/suicide into the story of how that incident inspired a younger actor to embrace his own homosexuality. And so, what could have been a powerful ode to the impact that movies have in shaping our identities — and by extension, the reason broken people are drawn to the profession, through which they hope to reach others like themselves — becomes an over-the-top celebration of Dolan himself.
Among cinephiles, the young child actor turned auteur is already one of the most divisive directors of his generation, having presented five of his first six features at the Cannes Film Festival, where any sign of criticism amid the acclaim has turned the dialogue between Dolan and the press so toxic that he swore to unveil his seventh film (and English-language debut) somewhere else, ultimately settling on the Toronto Film Festival, whose appreciative audiences seem to love everything — and nothing more than celebrating homegrown Canadian artists. Love him or hate him, there can be little denying that Dolan is exactly that: a true artist who, by all indications, feels things more intensely than the rest of us, and who continues to bare his soul, no matter how harsh the response.
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Although it may seem as if Dolan is holding nothing back, after nearly two years in editing, this magnum opus — which was rumored to have sprung from a nearly 300-page script, and once involved an entire subplot for Jessica Chastain, who has been seamlessly cut from the picture — runs an eminently reasonable 123 minutes. Building from the soul-rending opening cry of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” to the barbaric yawp of the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” (with a heavy-handed assist from composer Gabriel Yared during the intervening two hours), this is ecstatically self-indulgent filmmaking. And yet, compared with the epic running time of “Lawrence Anyways” or the emotionally supercharged “It’s Only the End of the World” (which this latest most closely resembles), one gets the distinct sense that it’s over even before it has begun.
That could just as easily be said of Hollywood star John F. Donovan’s tragically short life, the tabloid-ready conclusion of which imprinted itself on 11-year-old Rupert Turner (“Room” prodigy Jacob Tremblay) the way that JFK’s assassination or the Challenger explosion did upon previous generations: It was the defining incident in his own journey, and now, 11 years later, he has published a book assembling more than 100 letters penned by the star (played by “Game of Thrones” heartthrob Kit Harington, who’s hard to accept as much more than what the film dismisses as an “actor du jour”).
How did Rupert come to possess such a trove of correspondence? When he was six, the kid wrote Donovan a fan letter (we never hear its contents, although you can Google to find the letter Dolan wrote to Leonardo DiCaprio after seeing “Titanic” five times and imagine something similar). Against all odds — and what surely would have been the advice of bull-in-a-china-shop manager (Kathy Bates) — Donovan replied, striking up an unlikely pen-pal correspondence with the kid that somehow went unobserved by Rupert’s mother (Natalie Portman) all those years.
But these were no ordinary letters. Written by hand, in green ink, they offered a view into the tortured identity of a deeply private actor: Donovan, star of a CW-style primetime soap, was gay, which obliges him to treat his public life as a kind of performance, too. Does Donovan open up about any of this with Rupert? Dolan’s screenplay — or whatever fraction of it is represented on-screen — is maddeningly unclear about the contents of their correspondence: “I know your fantasies, I know your dreams,” writes the star, creepily, and though Rupert treats the actor’s letters like a personally addressed It Gets Better PSA, Donovan’s experience may as well illustrate the opposite. It’s as if Dolan wants to offer audiences the celebrity role model he never had — and yet, the character who embodies that isn’t Donovan but Rupert, who succeeds in doing what the star never could: live his truth.
All of this is filtered through a peculiar framing device, in which a “serious” journalist (Thandie Newton) begrudgingly sits down to what she sees as a fluff-piece assignment: interviewing Rupert, now an adult and an actor in his own right (played by Ben Schnetzer, who bears almost no resemblance to Tremblay), about his new book, which she hasn’t bothered to read. Desperate for respect, Rupert parries with the reluctant reporter over the course of the interview — really more of a colorful, discursive monologue, in which Rupert recounts the bullying child-actor auditions and mommy issues of what was essentially Dolan’s own childhood — and we watch her grow ever more impressed by what a profound soul he truly is.
“Final question,” he says near the end, and one thinks: Wait, has she had the chance to ask any questions? “This is a story about intolerance,” he tells the reporter, insisting that they want the same thing: to make an “impact on the thinking of people.” Cinema can do that, and “Death and Life” goes as far as any film — except perhaps “Win a Date With Tad Hamilton!” — to dramatize our childhood dream to connect with our celebrity idols. But should this story really be about Rupert?
Granted, Dolan stylishly interweaves scenes from Donovan’s life, including his fake marriage (to Emily Hampshire), failed same-sex romance (with Chris Zylka), and strained relationship with his alcoholic mother (Susan Sarandon), even imagining a mystical stand-alone monologue delivered by a twinkly-eyed Michael Gambon, who tells the tortured star, “I look at you, and all I see is a person whose work matters to my grandson.” Where Newton’s character had been pressed to squeeze her interview in before an all-important flight, upon hearing this, the seasoned war reporter opts to miss her plane and hear Rupert’s story.
Dolan writes juicy roles actors want to play, filtered through the egotism of his own experience: Portman’s big scene involves running in slow-motion to a Florence and the Machine cover of “Stand by Me” for a rain-drenched reconciliation with Rupert, while Bates’ moment finds her lecturing Donovan on how he mistreated the poor kid on national TV. Even Donovan can’t die without sending the kid one last letter — an apology, of course. Yes, audiences want to see themselves on-screen, but do they want to see quite so much of Dolan?