I was lucky enough to attend the two Natalie screenings that took part at the Toronto International Film Festival, and am going to give thorough spoiler free reviews. Keep in mind that I will still be describing these two films (The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, and Vox Lux), so these reviews might be a little bit spoiler heavy, despite the strict intention of not giving away specific plot details.
Without further adieu, here is a review of the long anticipated Xavier Dolan film The Death and Life of John F. Donovan.
The entire film is full of exceptional ideas but faulty executions. That’s sadly going to be the main theme of this entire review, so strap in tight. The basic premise is that a wide-eyed child named Rupert (Jacob Tremblay) has managed to create a correspondence with his favourite actor (the titular Donovan, played by Kit Harrington); this story was inspired by Dolan’s own fascination with Leonardo DiCaprio, as he wrote a fan letter to the actor when he was much younger (the film is the realization of “what would happen if the celebrity responds?). You never see the first letter being written, nor do you see it being read. This dream that many fanatics across the world cling to every day is never fully realized, because the ambitious initiation of this friendship never gets revealed. What was the experience like to both people? The fan? The talent? We’ll never truly know, and it is a major misstep from early on.
All of these recollections are told by an adult Rupert (Ben Schnetzer) to an initially ungrateful reporter (Thandie Newton), since his friendship with the late actor has now become a worldwide sensation in the form of a book. Rupert admits that he was never told the personal details of Donovan’s life, yet an entire third of the film is devoted to these moments; a good portion of them contain narration by Rupert, too. This makes absolutely no sense. If this is a speculation, the scenes are far too literal to be presumed. If this is actuality, how the hell does Rupert know any of this happened (and why would he deny being told intimate secrets)? Lastly, if this did happen and this isn’t from Rupert’s perspective, why is the interview with the reporter featured as the main source of plot revelation? Sadly, this is far from the only oversight that this film has, and it is a shame, as it seemed so intriguing on paper.
Young Rupert’s mother, played by Natalie, is a flawed parent that is trying her best despite her faults. However, with the contrived dialogue she is given, she comes off more as irresponsible and naive rather than earnest. Then there’s the dialogue given to Tremblay’s Rupert, where most of the lines he is given seem like they are meant for a twenty five year old and not a child. The underwhelming communication between these two creates a lack of chemistry despite the immeasurable amount of talent that could have oozed out of their scenes effortlessly. We get small glimpses of what could have been between these two the odd time their scenes work, but it isn’t often.
Harington as the titular star is decent when he is playing his role neutrally. Donovan seems like a conflicted star with a lot on his mind, and it shows. When Harington truly emotes here, however, the takes used are all but underwhelming. You can only wonder if these truly were the best takes that were available, especially since he is actually a little magnetic when he is being pensive. Donovan loves to sing in his downtime, and this vulnerability comes off as awkward instead of charming in a film where most attempts at engaging you are jarringly imperfect. The heart and soul of the film is a little too flat. We needed to have that icon that could mesmerize and fail us at the same time. We needed to feel that complete package that our idols carry because of our own ideologies, but Dolan’s lens never provides us with that opportunity. We can tell he’s Rupert’s favourite, but we never get even a speckle of that magic dust that circulates his poster-clad bedroom. I also have no clue if he is an English actor in Britain, or if he is an American actor in Britain, because of the fluctuating accent, and that is never a good thing.
Another gigantic problem is that the film begins a brilliant subplot that, once again, is never watered into a state of full bloom. Donovan is a queer actor that feels as though he has to stay closeted in 2006 (12 years ago truly is a lifetime ago). Rupert as a child is called derogatory names, and is even bullied because of his differences (he is an American kid in England, and the other boys are speculating that Rupert is also gay). That personal connection — where a personal hero becomes both an influence and a life saver — never gets reached. Here is a child that has a shining beacon of light from his favourite movie star and is seemingly one of the only people in his life that he can share his personal self with because he can identify with him. This never ever happens.
John F. Donovan is full of plot holes (how can Rupert’s mother not know he has no friends if he was physically bullied and he said that everyone hates him only a few days before) and half-reached potentials. Somewhere here is a brilliant movie waiting to burst, but it’s plagued by over-editing, over-produced scenes and under-produced scenes. The only good parts are ones that are questionable across the board; no part is definitively great. The first moment where we see Rupert enjoying his favourite tv show with his mother grinning in the background felt magical to me; it’s even fully realized with a super-specific use of Blink 182’s Adam’s Song as the show’s theme song (an all too appropriate tale of a fan connecting with his idols during times of hardship). This scene was one I liked but a peer hated; there were moments he liked that I didn’t in return. For Dolan’s English language debut, all of his traits are still there: the on-the-nose use of pop songs, the experimental perspectives, the golden-soaked imagery, and the super cynical people. The magic is missing, though, and it hurts. It isn’t as if Dolan didn’t try. He might have tried too hard, thus leading to the death of The Death and Life of John F. Donovan.