TIFF 2018: Xavier Dolan's Film 'The Death and Life of John F. Donovan'
by Alex Billington
September 11, 2018
Xavier Dolan is back! The Quebecois filmmaker premiered his latest film, titled The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, at the Toronto Film Festival and it's one of the most exceptional features of his career. Nearly perfect from start to finish. Starring Kit Harington as a closeted gay actor named John F. Donovan, the film is a story about authenticity and self-love, and how hard it is to achieve this. But with a little bit of hope, and friendship, and inspiration, and honesty, it's possible. Dolan seems to dig very deep this time to give us an extremely personal story, inspired by his own sexuality, experiences growing up, and a letter he wrote to Leonardo DiCaprio when he was a kid. It's his best work in years and already one of my favorite Dolan films (my top is still Mommy). I'm already looking forward to revisiting it, and getting more into the story, hoping it has a different impact on me the next time I see it - as is always the case with Dolan's films.
The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, co-written by Xavier Dolan and Jacob Tierney, has three layers to it. The opening story is about a kid named Rupert, played by Jacob Tremblay, who corresponded with the titular John F. Donovan through letters over years. This is connected to a storyline involving Rupert as an adult, played by Ben Schnetzer, being interviewed by a journalist (Thandie Newton) for an article she's writing about his career and life. During this interview, he recalls the letters and his experiences growing up. This introduces the third storyline - Kit Harington as Donovan, taking us back through his life as a small-time TV actor who broke out big and became a mega-famous movie star before his tragic suicide years later. We get to learn who he is and why he did this and how his life inspires Rupert to live his life. As complicated as this seems here, Dolan combines these storylines delicately and vividly, letting each one shine on its own.
As usual with Dolan, he knows how to integrate music into the film perfectly, and there's a few unforgettable scenes in this film where the actors sing along or the music connects perfectly with the moment. It's not cheesy, though it is loud, this helps to pull us further into the filmmaking. It's an immersive experience and it's truly invigorating to watch. You're pulled deep into the story, feeling the emotions and listening closely to all that's being said - within each of the storylines. Harington's performance is wonderful, he's a perfect version of the struggling, conflicted actor who always looks happy in public but is really deeply troubled in private. The best performance in the film is by Jacob Tremblay, it's his best work to date (even better than Room), and he's so wonderful here. He really becomes the heart and soul of the film, and Dolan knows how to get him to give his all. It hinges on his performance, because it's his story that means the most in the end.
Even though the final message in the film is something we've all heard before, it's the delivery of this that makes it so meaningful and so inspiring. And it's the payoff - the final act is where it all comes together and it's tremendous to watch. This is something that happens throughout the film, there's poignant scenes and sincere lines that will resonate more with some viewers. I love the way Dolan works these moments into his films, especially in this one more than his others, because it's meant to hit you in the heart and make you think deeply about what's going on. It's meant to inspire our own compassion and growth by watching and hearing about the stories of others who have struggled. The main storylines in this connect as an example of one person's honesty about his life influencing & inspiring another. Sometimes it really can be that simple.
During the introduction, TIFF's Cameron Bailey described Xavier Dolan's films as being immersive and fully engaging experiences. That's so true. But he also talked about how they're so impressive that the filmmaking and the craft itself is astounding, you don't know how they filmed it and pulled this off, but you're so lost in the story it doesn't even matter. It's a wonderful feeling. If the filmmaking is that good, and editing is that good, and the acting is that good, and the soundtrack is that good, it pulls you in completely and allows us to feel more deeply while watching what's happening. Even if it's not a story about your own experiences, the performances and the honesty makes you understand. That's the case with John F. Donovan, a terrific film that is not only entertaining but also rousing. Dolan has put in a great amount of work in the editing to deliver a film that is the complete package - inspired by his youth, but universal in its capability to inspire.
Alex's TIFF 2018 Rating: 9.8 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter - @firstshowing