×

Toronto Film Review: ‘The Death and Life of John F. Donovan’

Xavier Dolan crafts an ecstatic ode to the power of celebrity in this intensely personal account of how a child actor’s correspondence with a closeted Hollywood star inspires his own life choices.

Director:
Xavier Dolan
With:

Kit Harington, Jacob Tremblay, Natalie Portman

2 hours 3 minutes

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.

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?

Popular on Variety

Toronto Film Review: 'The Death and Life of John F. Donovan'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations), Sept. 10, 2018. Running time: 123 MIN.

Production: A Les Films Séville presentation of a Lyla Films, Sons of Manual production, in association with Warp Films. (Int'l sales: Séville Intl., Montreal.) Producers: Lyse Lafontaine, Nancy Grant, Xavier Dolan, Michel Merkt. Executive producers: Joe Iacono, Patrick Roy, Anick Poirier, Nathanaël Karmitz, Elisha Karmitz.

Crew: Director: Xavier Dolan. Screenplay: Dolan, Jacob Tierney. Camera (color, widescreen): André Turpin. Editors: Dolan, Mathieu Denix. Music: Gabriel Yared.

With:

Kit Harington, Jacob Tremblay, Natalie Portman

, Susan Sarandon, Thandie Newton, Kathy Bates, Ben Schnetzer, Sarah Gadon, Emily Hampshire, Jared Keeso.

More Film

  • Costa Gavras

    Costa-Gavras to Receive San Sebastian Career Achievement Donostia Award

    Costa-Gavras, the Greek-born France-based director of some of the most famed movies of political cinema, from 1969’s “Z” to 1981’s “Missing,” will receive a career achievement Donostia Award at this September’s 67th San Sebastian Film Festival. More to come.   Popular on Variety

  • Mighty Eagle (Peter Dinklage), Leonard (Bill

    China Box Office: New Animations No Match For 'Nezha' Domination

    Chinese animation “Nezha” continued its run as China’s biggest hit of the summer, maintaining its top spot at the box office even 25 days into its run with a weekend gross of $41.2 million. The tally made it this weekend’s fourth highest grossing film worldwide. Meanwhile, two other new animated titles performed unremarkably. The flop of [...]

  • Samuel-W.-Gelfman

    Samuel Gelfman, Roger Corman Film Producer, Dies at 88

    Samuel Gelfman, a New York producer known for his work on Roger Corman’s “Caged Heat,” “Cockfighter” and “Cannonball!,” died Thursday morning at UCLA Hospital in Westwood following complications from heart and respiratory disease, his son Peter Gelfman confirmed. He was 88. Gelfman was born in Brooklyn, New York and was raised in Caldwell New Jersey [...]

  • Margot Robbie stars in ONCE UPON

    Box Office: 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' Pulls Ahead of 'Hobbs & Shaw' Overseas

    Sony’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” might not have hit No. 1 in North America, but Quentin Tarantino’s latest film is leading the way at the international box office, where it collected $53.7 million from 46 markets. That marks the best foreign opening of Tarantino’s career, coming in ahead of 2012’s “Django Unchained.” “Once [...]

  • Good Boys Movie

    Box Office: 'Good Boys' Leads Crowded Weekend With $21 Million

    The Bean Bag Boys, the self-appointed nickname for the trio of best friends in Universal’s “Good Boys,” are conquering much more than sixth grade. They are also leading the domestic box office, exceeding expectations and collecting $21 million on opening weekend. “Good Boys,” which screened at 3,204 North American theaters, is a much-needed win for [...]

  • Amanda Awards

    ‘Out Stealing Horses’ Tops Norway’s 2019 Amanda Awards

    HAUGESUND, Norway —  Hans Petter Moland’s sweeping literary adaptation “Out Stealing Horses” put in a dominant showing at Norway’s Amanda Awards on Saturday night, placing first with a collected five awards, including best Norwegian film. Celebrating its 35th edition this year, the Norwegian industry’s top film prize helped kick off the Haugesund Film Festival and [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content