How to start talking about The Death and Life of John F. Donovan? I’ve been waiting to watch this movie for about three years since Xavier Dolan announced he was going to make his first English language film, starring Kit Harrington, Natalie Portman, Susan Sarandon, Kathy Bates, and Jessica Chastain. There were even Adele and Nicholas Hoult in the cast but apparently, that didn’t happen. Two years later into post-production, Dolan announced he was going to cut Jessica Chastain from the movie to give more clarity to the story and a year after that the film premiered at Toronto Film Festival. To my surprise, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan received terrible reviews and the only countries that bought the license to screen Xavier Dolan’s 6th feature were France, Italy, Russia, and Canada. Questions about what had happened to this film haunted me until today, when I was finally able to watch it.
The first thing that comes to mind during the first 30 minutes of the film is “what a waste”. Being probably Xavier Dolan’s most expensive (and ambitious) film to date with so many big names, why on earth is this film still sitting in the dark? Why isn’t it being shown in festivals around the world or being bought to be released within the commercial circuit? The cast itself must already sell some tickets and everybody that knows Xavier Dolan is interested to know about what he is doing, whether they like him or not. Wich let’s admit, Dolan has created a very questionable “love or hate” reputation that I’ve never quite understood, considering I’ve always loved his films. Is it because he is too young that people go harder on him? This, however, is a debate for another moment.
Having just turned 30 and with seven movies under his belt, Xavier Dolan once said he wrote a letter to Leonardo DiCaprio when he was a kid. I believe this must have been what inspired him to make The Death and Life of John F Donovan, a movie that breathes early 2000s nostalgia through a story of a young kid who starts to correspond letters with his favorite star. What would have that meant to him? Or even worse, what would have happened if the media found out? That’s the main plot of the movie, which opens with a war journalist having to interview Ruper Turner, a twenty-year-old something actor who is known to have had a secret relationship with a famous dead star through letters when he was young. With that, Rupert Turner narrates the story of his childhood along with the rise of John F. Donovan’s career, based on what Mr. Donovan told him through his letters.
Now that we are approaching the end of the 2010 decade, we can say for sure that we had a lot of representation in the entertainment industry comparing to the 2000s decade. Celebrities are open about their sexuality nowadays and TV shows are constantly mentioning homosexuality, feminism, transgender people and black inclusion. Dolan latest film focus on a time of this century that we seem to have forgotten, a time when information took longer to arrive in our houses and the American star system was still pretty heteronormative. A time that everyone who was born in the late 80s to mid-90s can relate to. And that’s the area Xavier Dolan has always liked to explore.
From one side we have Rupert, an eleven-year-old boy who is bullied at school and is obsessed with John F. Donovan, an actor who appears on stupid TV shows and superhero movies. On the other side, we have John F. Donovan, a good looking star on the rise who struggles with his sexuality and the euphoria of stardom. The only way both characters find to escape their world is through this exchange of letters, which almost seems like an act of redemption. There is even an interesting ambiguity in the plot to whether they were really exchanging letters or not, which is kind of interesting, but there is no denial Xavier Dolan faced some problems within the script.
I believe the biggest problem with The Death and Life of John F. Donovan is Xavier Dolan himself. Being an extremely ambitious film, Dolan seemed to have wanted to say so many things at the same time that his ideas got on the way, making him his worst enemy. Despite the letter correspondence being a big part of the film, we never really feel the connection between these two characters. Another example is the relationship they have with their mothers, which is a very signature trait from Dolan that despite being an important part of the film, it feels a little dragged. Also, the conclusion of the movie seems a little powerless comparing to everything that has been thrown into the story. I would have liked to see more scenes about Rupert’s obsession with John, or even Donovan exploring/hiding his homosexuality. After all, this is a portrait of how pop culture has shaped our childhood and even our coming of age, and I felt that this could have been better explored than it was. One way or the other, the film still works fine and is definitely not anything that justifies the terrible ratings the film received.
After all, I believe is impossible to feel bored while you are watching the film. First, the impeccable cast, that is not only great but also full of touching performances. I didn’t think Natalie Portman would appear that much but she’s in most of Rupert’s scenes when he is a kid, who is played by the magnificent Jacob Tremblay. Suzan Sarandon and Kathy Bates are also brilliant, even though they didn’t get much space on the screen. And Kit Harrington, that even though we can’t forget that he is actually John Snow, is very fun to watch him portray an American actor who is struggling with his sexuality by fooling around with Chris Zylka, another great actor who is slowly building an impressive body of work. Not mentioning Thandie Newton as the war journalist who doesn’t take Donovan’s story seriously.
The second main thing that makes the film so interesting to watch is Xavier Dolan’s signature style, which many people don’t like. Here, they are so exaggerated that sometimes it is almost tacky – but in a good way. Is the Friends TV show font that opens the movie, the soundtrack composed of Green Day, The Verve and Blink 182, the flip cellphones and the ridiculous clothes some characters use. After all, this is a movie about the early 2000s and Dolan being a millennial born in the late 80s, the period where his film happens is the perfect place for him to throw some references that he has always loved.
In the end, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan is a very good movie. It may not be as good and deep as Mommy, Heartbeats or even It’s the End of the World, but it’s not even close to the trash many people are claiming to be. If you never liked Xavier Dolan you won’t find anything interesting here. But if you do, you may be surprised.
Papiro & Mint | ★★★★