You can say a lot of things about The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, but you can’t say filmmaker Xavier Dolan didn’t leave it all on the field. The sprawling drama marks the lauded Canadian filmmaker’s first English-language film, and in it he ambitiously attempts to tackle themes of fame, privacy, sexuality, growing up, and of course mothers and sons. It doesn’t really work, and some bits of the film are a total mess, but the shaggy film isn’t entirely without merit. Dolan’s wild ambition, however flawed, is certainly something to behold.
The Death and Life of John F. Donovan is really three stories in one. There’s a present day story, in which an author and actor named Rupert Turner (played by Ben Schnetzer) recounts his years-long written correspondence with a celebrated TV star named John F. Donovan (Kit Harington) to an unimpressed reporter (Thandie Newton); there’s a 2006 story showing the events leading up to Donovan’s premature death at the age of 29; and there’s another 2006 story where 11-year-old Rupert Turner (Jacob Tremblay) idolizes Donovan and begins writing to him, all the while struggling with his relationships at school and with his failed actress mother (Natalie Portman).
Only one of these three stories really works in total, and that’s the one involving Tremblay and Portman. This should’ve been the entire film, as we see a young boy obsessed with a handsome TV star, who’s also struggling to express his own voice. He gets bullied at school, called “gayboy,” and while he dreams of becoming an actor, his mother is afraid he’ll follow the same path that led her to failure. Tremblay and Portman are both really great, and this story has a lot of heart in it.
But then there’s the rest of the movie. Donovan is a closeted gay man struggling to maintain his secret in the face of increasing fame, but the film doesn’t dig deep enough into his internal battles to really make much of an impact. Harington has a hard time really connecting with the character (and finding a passable American accent), and this section of the film is positively dripping with earnest nostalgia. If you want to see Harington earnestly sing along to Green Day and Lifehouse, this is the movie for you.
There are of course parallels between Donovan and Turner’s stories: both are somewhat closeted, both have complicated relationships with their mothers, and both have trouble connecting with the people around them. But the Donovan storyline is so dripping in melodrama and sentimentality that it clashes with the solid coming-of-age story of Turner. A more interesting film might have dropped Donovan’s POV altogether and just focused on Turner’s life, and indeed it’s no secret that this film went through many, many changes during production and post-production—Dolan cut Jessica Chastain’s villain out of the film entirely.
It’s clear Dolan was going for something earnestly ambitious here, and his earnestness is admirable. This very much feels like a film that’s digging into extremely personal issues for Dolan (he himself wrote a fan letter to Leonardo DiCaprio when he was 9), but in execution the story and film is just far too unwieldy. The sap goes overboard in parts, Harington is somewhat miscast, and the soundtrack choices feel less organic to the story and more like Dolan simply wanting to revisit songs he loved from 2006.
The Death and Life of John F. Donovan is a lot of movie, and most of it is extremely messy. But it’s not a complete, abject failure. There’s a good story in here somewhere—albeit one that needs significant refining—and there’s enough of that good story to keep you (mostly) engaged for the film’s runtime. But by the end of the movie, when The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” kicks in, it all just feels a bit silly. Dolan’s reach here far exceeds his grasp.
The Death and Life of John F. Donovan does not currently have a release date.