Enjoying its world premiere at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan was one of the years most anticipated films. It marks the English language debut for Quebec’s celebrated wonderkid Xavier Dolan and includes a star-studded cast featuring performances by Kit Harington, Jacob Tremblay, Natalie Portman, Susan Sarandon, Thandie Newton, Kathy Bates and Sarah Gadon.
The Death and Life of John F. Donovan has experienced plenty of hiccups on its journey to the silver screen: its worldwide debut was nixed from the Cannes lineup and actress Jessica Chastain had her role swiped late into the game after the films first iteration ran over 4 hours. So to say that Xavier Dolan hasn’t encountered a few bumps in the road on the journey to bring his latest film to audiences is an understatement.
But let’s be clear. I loved this film.
So you can imagine the shock I experienced when getting home from my screening (I don’t read other reviews until I’ve seen a film for myself) to read that top tier critics from The Guardian and Hollywood Reporter had bulldozed the film as a disjointed disappointment. The one thing we can all agree on is that Xavier Dolan’s newest work has created a stir, clearly dividing critics and audiences. But let’s not forget his last film, It’s Only the End of the World, which drew harsh criticism from critics at Cannes, went on to find redemption after being awarded the festival’s prestigious Grand Prix.
In The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, Dolan spins a story about a young man’s reassessment of his infamous, and ultimately disastrous, childhood pen pal relationship with an American television star. John F. Donovan (Kit Harington) plays a heartthrob who we learn died alone and unexpectedly after a series of scandals. One of his biggest fans, 11-year-old Rupert Turner (Jacob Tremblay), seems to have a unique insight into John’s tortured soul. For five years John and Rupert shared a secret friendship, exchanging letters in the mail about their hopes, dreams and disappointments.
Fast-forward to present day and Rupert (Ben Schnetzer), is now a successful actor in his own right, having just written a memoir that details his correspondence with the deceased star. The film is framed around Rupert’s interview with skeptical reporter Audrey Newhouse (Thandie Newton), who is used to covering ravaged war zones not young gay men and their secret stories. Throughout their dialogue Rupert reveals all he knows about John’s troubled life, how he compromised his authentic self for fame – and how his generosity inspired him to connect with a man he idolized.
For queer cinema fans, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan offers a glimpse into the troubling headspace of coming out of the closet. Dolan has crafted a story that is shared through the lens of three moments in time, which many critics found hard to follow (but I argue, for LGBT folks who have been traumatized by their own coming out experience, they may find the dreamlike flashes eerily authentic). We slowly learn about what drives John to his unfortunate demise by glimpsing through different portals and perspectives in time.
Fans of Dolan’s work will appreciate that gay men and their hostile relationship with mom plays a pivotal role in the plot. Natalie Portman enters into screaming matches with her young articulate son while Susan Sarandon struggles to maintain a meaningful relationship with John as he spirals into despair brought on by his inability to live his life authentically. The Death and Life of John F. Donovan is rich and layered, the sort of cinematic experience you want to take notes to and watch a few times to properly digest. It’s also the sort of drama you want to watch with a gaggle of gays. Plan to have a discussion afterwards and I’m sure you’ll encounter unique responses and reactions, that when pressed closely reveal the diversity of each of our queer identities.