TIFF18: The Death and Life of John F. Donovan

The Death and Life of John F. Donovan is a good movie in the shadow of a great one.

As a child, Rupert Turner was enamoured with a teen hearthrob, John F. Donovan, who was actually an adult playing a teenager on some soapy high school drama. A budding actor himself, Rupert (Jacob Tremblay) writes to Donovan (Kit Harington), telling him of his ambitions and desires – namely, to one day act alongside him. Surprisingly, Donovan writes back, and a beautiful friendship is forged, strictly as pen pals. But when that relationship is discovered, first by Rupert’s mother (Natalie Portman), then by the press, the friendship is misinterpreted and Donovan vilified. He dies before our two buddies can ever meet up.

john_f_donovanTen years later, a grown-up Rupert (Ben Schnetzer) is releasing a collection of their correspondence as a book, and a skeptical reporter (Thandie Newton) is interviewing him. The truth of their friendship is revealed through flashbacks, as is Donovan’s life, which of course was not all rainbows and lollipops.

Behind his privilege, Donovan had an absent father, a family that fauns over him and resents him in equal measure, an alcoholic mother (Susan Sarandon), an agent who is decidedly not his friend (Kathy Bates), and a girlfriend/childhood friend (Emily Hampshire) who is also his beard (unknowingly). He’s hiding a lot. He lives in a world filled with illusion. He’s pulled in a thousand directions and has no friends who aren’t on the payroll, and yeah, it is kind of sad that he unburdens his soul to a kid, but it’s also kind of understandable, which is sadder still.

Director Xavier Dolan is uniquely positioned to have something to say about child actors and the celebrity beast and I really enjoyed his attempts at profundity in this film. This is his first English-language film and while there are still traces of his typically auteur-ish style, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan is perhaps missing just a little of what normally makes a Dolan a Dolan. It also suffers a bit from bloat. Susan Sarandon’s performance is quite good, her character very interesting, but there isn’t a lot of room for her, as Dolan cut the movie down from 4 hours to just over 2 (and left Jessica Chastain completely on the cutting room floor). Kathy Bates’ part isn’t really a part at all, barely more than a cameo.

Dolan’s crime seems to have been starting out with too much to say and then having a hard time parting ways with any of it during editing. But I think John Donovan is a character worth getting to know. And the topic of celebrity death, and our cultural obsession with it, and possibly contribution to it, is ripe for harvesting.  I think the wording of the title has something to say about it all by itself. This movie isn’t all that it could be, and coming in to a Xavier Dolan film, I can’t help but bring high hopes and standards. But there’s something worthwhile here, and I hope it will be mined for the diamonds and not just the flaws.

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12 thoughts on “TIFF18: The Death and Life of John F. Donovan

  1. raistlin0903

    Wow, Jessica Chastain ending up on the cutting floor huh? That is really a crime in and of itself alone. She is such an amazing actress. Real shame if you ask me. That said, it still sounds like a great film, that just fell short of the mark. But one I will still check out at some point. As always, terrific review!😊

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    1. Jay Post author

      Yeah, I love Dolan and I just think he’s a cool film maker.
      Chastain was playing some sort of villain. His first cut was 4 hours long…and I’d kind of like to see it. He had to cut out her story to get the movie shaved down.

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      1. raistlin0903

        Yeah I read that you said it was originally four hours long, that is quite a lot that ended up on the cutting floor in that way. Well, who knows, maybe a future dvd release will see a director’s cut or something and see those scenes restored 😊

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  2. J.

    I’m very interested in this one, even if it sounds like it could benefit from a fresh edit (maybe some of that stuff on the cutting room floor makes the difference). In fact, I dare say the full 4 hours will be available at some point, eh? Maybe that’s how Dolan would prefer it be experienced…

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    1. Jay Post author

      Maybe so, and I’m there for it.
      This is the first time he’s really gone outside of Canada to get his film done I think, and I’m sure the loss of control did not suit him.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
  3. ninvoid99

    So I guess this is a film to see with caution? I do like Xavier Dolan though I was shocked to hear about the film as well as one of his music choices in…. Lifehouse? Ugh….

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    Reply
    1. Jay Post author

      I LOVED that scene, actually, it reminded me 100% of my sisters.
      And in fact, when I mentioned it to Sean, he pinpointed the exact year the film is set, so it’s effective in establishing period if nothing else.

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