The Death and Life of John F. Donovan is a Compelling but Endearing Mess: TIFF Review

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I’ve never been the biggest fan of Xavier Dolan and I outright hated his last film, so upon hearing that The Death and Life of John F. Donovan was already opening to bad reviews from other peers at TIFF, I thought I already knew what I was set to expect. Yet instead I came out thinking that as messy as it may have been, this also happens to be one of Dolan’s best films. Surprisingly, it was rather easy for me to have made such a statement because it seems to be a perfect summary of what I find Dolan himself to be – and it’s also set to divide people all the more. But because of what a story like this can say about where Xavier Dolan comes from, I think it’s also fitting enough to say that there’s a lot of heart to be recognized in a story like this, and for the most part – it also happens to be in the right place. Which is more than I know I can say about many of Dolan’s other films, because I’m also looking forward to seeing another English-language effort by him now.

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The film already starts fittingly enough with a young Rupert Turner (Jacob Tremblay) being so eager to meet up with the teen idol John F. Donovan (Kit Harington). But the news had only recently broke that the beloved star had died at a young age, rendering a lifelong dream unfulfilled – followed by a memoir about what it felt to have had such a connection with a star. As we look back through the memories of what it felt like for Rupert Turner (now played by Ben Schnetzer) as he is interviewed by journalist Audrey Newhouse (Thandie Newton) to have a connection with the fallen TV star. This film feels already like it hasn’t left from that phase of life in which anyone would obsessively follow along celebrity culture, but there’s also a sense of heart that arises when you know how much of this film feels so personal even for a young director like Xavier Dolan, giving a sense of authenticity to this story that may not be so easy to tap onto.

Dolan has always been a very audacious filmmaker, which is rather impressive given his age, but I’ve never always clicked with his films – making The Death and Life of John F. Donovan a rather pleasant surprise. This is a film that carries the very tendencies about Dolan’s films that I’ve always found to have made them rather messy products but for whatever reason I’ve also found that even with the heightened melodrama and certain far-fetched narrative grasps – there’s still a mess present, yet a lot to admire about how personal this also feels for Xavier Dolan. Perhaps this may have been the most that he’s already put himself in danger, given the stories that one can note about the troubled state of the film’s production, yet the results of the expected mess also have a more resonant feeling present. It feels more resonant because Xavier Dolan still hangs onto these memories so closely, speaking out from a more personal level for him. It feels every bit as messy as these memories, but somehow it works because of the way it all unravels what it feels like to be such a dedicated fan and how it still impacts the life of another. Of course, the results are not perfect – but it’s never any less endearing because of what it seeks to capture from living in that moment.

Sometimes this can come to the film’s own fault too, because the music cues in this film are rather grating – even to the point that they throw you out of the mood for the context of the sequence. Without spoiling the film, one of these moments included Florence + The Machine’s “Stand by Me” cover during an especially melodramatic moment, as if Dolan felt the scene wasn’t strong enough as is so he needs music to dictate what the scene feels like. Even being a fan of Florence + The Machine myself, I can’t help but feel as if this also felt like it was one of the most distracting cues in the film because of the context of the scene where it was playing. It ends up making a tender moment feel even cheesier, but this isn’t even the worst of where the most distracting of these music cues can go for you even have an ill-timed “Bitter Sweet Symphony” coming by. Not to say that it’s a bad song by any means, but it also feels like a cheap means of setting the mood for the sequence without letting the moment flow naturally.

When the film works best, you even have moments that bite viciously at the state of celebrity culture – something that already makes Kit Harington the perfect fit for his role here. Coming fresh off his Game of Thrones role, there’s a certain sense of charisma that Harington employs into his performance that feels reflective of the nature of what it feels like for him to play Jon Snow for so long. Even if the film’s state of production would have cut out a star like Jessica Chastain, there’s a lot to admire even about what the stars can offer with what little time they have on the screen – exemplifying Xavier Dolan’s ability to get the best out of his stars. Sarah Gadon and Emily Hampshire are great as they’ve always been in their small roles, but Jacob Tremblay perfectly captures the spirit of the overeager fan in his own role. But Dolan directs these cast members so wonderfully in the roles that they have, yet portions of their performances also feel missing – it only leaves one wanting more.

The Death and Life of John F. Donovan is a film that I’ve never always been sure of the moment in which I remember hearing about Jessica Chastain had been cut out from the film entirely, but the results while expectedly messy turned out more endearing than I suspected they would be. And take it from me, who has never always been sold on Xavier Dolan’s sensibilities behind the camera, but I’ve always admired his talent. It feels like the perfect movie to represent his personality, not having grown out of that personality of being a dedicated fan for years – even to that point he would be reading a letter he wrote to Leonardo DiCaprio at the premiere. But I wonder what Xavier Dolan would be able to create next in English, because there’s always something interesting to find in The Death and Life of John F. Donovan as messy as it may be as a whole.


Watch the TIFF intro and Q&A right here.

Images via TIFF and eOne.


Directed by Xavier Dolan
Screenplay by Xavier Dolan, Jacob Tierney
Produced by Nancy Grant, Lyse Lafontaine, Xavier Dolan
Starring Kit Harington, Natalie Portman, Susan Sarandon, Kathy Bates, Jacob Tremblay, Ben Schnetzer, Thandie Newton, Amara Karan, Chris Zylka, Jared Keeso, Emily Hampshire, Michael Gambon
Running Time: 127 minutes
Release Date: September 10, 2018 (TIFF)

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