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#TIFF18 Review: The Death and Life of John F. Donovan

September 16, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The latest from Quebec’s Xavier Dolan, and his first in English, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan is still a work that is distinctly his, featuring the same soaring cinematography, musical interludes set to pop songs, and underlying themes of mother-son love as his other films.

The film tells two interconnecting stories. The first one involves an American TV star by the name of John F. Donovan (Kit Harrington), who at the beginning of the film is found dead of an overdose. The second one involves Rupert Turner (Jacob Tremblay), an American boy who moved to England with his mother (Natalie Portman), and dreams of being an actor.

The film is centred around the pen-pal friendship that Rupert developed with Donovan after writing him a fan letter, and the narrative is structured with Rupert as an adult (Ben Schnetzer), telling the story of these letters to a reporter (Thandie Newton). Through this, we get flashbacks that show him as a boy intercut with scenes from Donovan’s career, revealing the many moments in their lives that mirrored each other.

I know this film has gotten some mixed reactions since its premiere, but I actually liked it, warts and all. Not all of the characters and story strands feel equally well developed, probably due to the fact that the film has gone through a lot of delays and changes on its way to the screen – with the most publicized of them being the fact that Jessica Chastain had all of her scenes cut out late into post-production.

The film does segue into melodrama at certain points, and it is certainly flawed, but it also functions as an enjoyable tribute to pop culture, that kept me engaged enough to find it entertaining. Even if the film doesn’t reach the heights of Dolan’s other films, notably his stunning 2014 masterpiece Mommy, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan is still a stylish and entertaining entry into his filmography.

Jacob Tremblay in The Death and Life of John F. Donovan

Public Screenings:

Monday, September 10th – 6:00 PM at Winter Garden Theatre

Tuesday, September 11th – 3:00 PM at Scotiabank Theatre

The 2018 Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 6th to 16th.

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