Friday, January 1, 2021

2020 Top Ten List #3 The Death and Life of John F. Donovan

Director Xavier Dolan on the set

Dolan (left) on the set with actor Kit Harrington

THE DEATH AND LIFE OF JOHN F. DONOVAN          A-                   
Canada  Great Britain  (123 mi)  2018  ‘Scope  d:  Xavier Dolan

Remember Stanley (Jeremy Blackman), the lonely child prodigy and long-running contestant featured on his quiz show, exploited and browbeaten by his overbearing father in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999), whose aching loneliness just grabbed us by the throat?  Dolan has constructed an entire film around that singular character, or a similar character, remaining shockingly unpretentious and honest, creating what is perhaps his most open film yet.  Loathed and repudiated by the critics, many describing this as his worst effort, it’s clear by now there is a line of demarcation with Dolan and many of his critics, who are making personal assaults on his character with this film, finding him overpraised and self-indulgent, like cinema’s golden boy, having worn out his welcome, as his career trajectory doesn’t meet the expectations of these critics, who believe he should be making different kinds of films by now.  But what Dolan has going for him is an intensely personal viewpoint, as no one speaks to the gay experience like Dolan, where each of his films approach the subject differently, all offering unique windows into the human soul.  Having said that, this film is different, feeling more like a Hollywood movie, working with a considerably larger budget at $35 million, shot on 35mm by longtime cinematographer André Turpin, capturing a look that is often exquisite, including recognizable movie stars who speak English for the first time, with an overbearing musical score by Gabriel Yared that is kind of wretched, but it doesn’t seem to matter, as it’s such a compelling film.  Part of what critics point to has to do with the backdrop of the film, as actress Jessica Chastain was cut out of the final edit, leading many to conclude the film was a troubled production and an editing mess, trimmed down from 4-hours, spending two years editing this film down to size when normally it only takes Dolan two months, doing his own editing since his second film, shared in this film with Mathieu Denis, so, of course, he was lambasted for the editing as well.  The real problem is that the scope of critical negativity has prevented this film’s release in the United States, screening nowhere, as you have to search for alternative streaming sites to find viewing possibilities.  One such site is The Roku Channel, offering a 7-day free subscription, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan - The Roku Channel, while it’s also available on Hulu, Watch The Death and Life of John F. Donovan ... - Hulu.  Granted, watching a Dolan film on television is hardly the same as experiencing the grandiosity of his filmmaking in a theater, but this film tones down the visual pyrotechnics, refraining from those exaggerated cinematic moments, creating a standard melodrama that continually shifts points of view, moving freely between the past and present in multiple flashbacks, becoming more of a character study.  Ostensibly a story about celebrity and fan worship, adding a gay subtext, this one contains an element of autobiographic truth about it, as Dolan wrote an 8-year old fan letter to Leonardo Di Caprio, having watched him in James Cameron’s TITANIC (1997) five times. “I am one of your fans,” he explained, “You are a great actor and I admire you,” hoping to meet him if he ever comes to Montreal.  Similarly, Jacob Tremblay, the child actor in Larry Abrahamson’s Room (2015), is Rupert Turner, an 11-year old schoolboy who develops a mad crush about a superhero movie character with magical powers in the teen drama TV series Hellsome High, starring Kit Harrington as John F. Donovan, living and breathing everything about this fictional character, becoming the most vital aspect of his own young life. 

Opening in the swirling chaos of a movie set, spiraling into a montage of celebrity fan appearances, including screaming young teenage girls absolutely enthralled by Donovan, hanging onto his every move, blowing kisses, on the verge of fainting at the sight, followed by more appearances in famous places, accompanied by a gorgeous female escort, attending parties, seen with all the right people, where this is a whirlwind life of instant stardom and success.  Yet despite the dream, Donovan is living a lie, as he’s pretending to be something he isn’t, living up to other people’s expectations, where he’s a hollow shell of himself, unfulfilled and distant, not really knowing who he is, hiding a clandestine affair with a dreamy boyfriend Will (Chris Zylka), then getting cold feet when the relationship gets too close, eventually lost in a vast graveyard of extravagance and success, The death and life of John . F Donovan: Club scene YouTube (2:45).  From the ferocity of stardom we’re jettisoned into the lonely life of a young boy, Rupert, seen initially in the mad throes of his favorite TV character, going ballistics at his every move, arriving home late from school, needing to know exactly what he missed from his mother (Natalie Portman), his emotions skyrocketing at every new revelation in the show, where he is the picture of every wild and obsessed movie fan.  Yet he’s also bullied and teased relentlessly at school, repeatedly called “gayboy,” subject to an onslaught of homophobic gay slurs, an American exiled in London, brought there by his mother pursuing her own non-existent acting career, feeling totally out of place, rejected at every turn, so he starts a writing correspondence with his favorite actor, John F. Donovan, who surprisingly writes back, developing a personal correspondence that lasts for years, which he keeps secret, where this long-distance relationship offers him the only real friend he has in the world.  But things go haywire when he reveals his remarkable friendship in a “show and tell” school assignment, as everyone is certain he’s making it all up, that it’s all a figment of his imagination, but when he digs into his backpack to offer proof, one of the kids has stolen all the letters, seen laughing at him as the school bus drives away.  Not knowing what else to do, he breaks into the kid’s home to retrieve the letters, but is promptly arrested, leaving his mother in a dizzying hole of anxious cluelessness.  From the whirlwind opening of celebrity and fame, we’re equally drawn into this secret life of a lonely young kid who’s at his wits end, the death and life of john f. donovan jacob tremblay YouTube (3:19).  Like an unraveling soap opera, the melodramatic flourish on display is intoxicating, often using pop music to accentuate themes, but Tremblay is a child star, nailing every scene he’s in, becoming a compelling figure not often seen in movies, as his role is the dominating figure.  The moment he realizes his idol has died from a suspected drug overdose, seen on a television news report, his world is crushed.  Equally deluged in anxiety and confusion is the life of Donovan, who is rumored to be gay and closeted, tormented by the tabloid press, where he starts questioning himself, wondering what if i don’t belong here? YouTube (3:18).  The film is an explosion of raw nerves, a choreography of inner revelations, featuring extraordinary acting by everyone involved, as this is such intensely personal territory, at times simply enthralling.  Dolan bridges their different worlds through a clever device, as Rupert grows up, turning into actor Ben Schnetzer, now aged 21, publishing a book about the letters and his experiences, interviewed by Thandie Newton as a cynical New York Times journalist who initially shows no sign of interest whatsoever, failing to even read his book, yet slowly and assuredly Rupert wins her over, cutting through all the bullshit and pre-conceived notions (like Dolan answering all his critics), simply offering his own truth to all the doubters out there. 

Kathy Bates plays Donovan’s agent, Barbara Haggermaker, and has a killer scene when she drops him as her client, as he’s gotten into fights and caused mayhem on the sets, driven into a paranoiac rage, perhaps fueled by drugs, where he’s turned into somebody else, someone she no longer recognizes, yet her brutal honesty is stunning, where it’s a beautiful thing to see her in a role that suits her so perfectly.  Susan Sarandon plays Donovan’s mother, something of an alcoholic herself, but a true diva, worshipping herself at the expense of others, bitter after an unhappy marriage with his father, where her son remains a foreign entity, as if from another planet.  Yet she has an amazingly tender scene with him near the end, actually offering the healing power of maternal love, providing the balance that’s been missing in his life, reassuring him that she’s always known his true self.  Natalie Portman provides what may be the best moment in the film, when Rupert’s school teacher Mrs. Kureishi (Amara Karan, excellent in her small role) drops off an essay he wrote about his mother, throwing all his personal resentments aside, realizing how important she is in his life, which hits her like a ton of bricks, racing off to find him, set to Florence + the Machine’s version of Stand By Me, the life and death of john f. donovan stand by me YouTube (3:23), which is simply phenomenal filmmaking.  This overall thread of powerful women onscreen is certainly the heart and soul of this film, following in the footsteps of Douglas Sirk and his often derided “women’s pictures” (viewed much differently today), or Almodóvar’s continuing tribute to women, where it feels as if the women are providing trailblazing moments, as Dolan has never had the opportunity to work with such talent, yet he utilizes them in such original ways, where they stand for the best in us.  The hole that Donovan digs for himself is perplexing, disavowing his friendship with Rupert when the tabloids press him on it, betraying him when he needs him the most, yet as his world spirals out of control, he tenderly writes a final letter to Rupert, burrowed into the back of an empty restaurant kitchen, where he’s greeted by a stranger who accidentally appears (Michael Gambon, aka Professor Albus Dumbledore in the last Harry Potter movies), almost like an answered prayer, providing a voice for his gnawing conscience, offering, at least for a brief moment, some clarity.  It’s Portman, however, that reads his final letter, John F Donovan’s Last Letter YouTube (3:02), that reads like a final testimony, providing a summation of his life in turmoil, reaching out once again to his biggest fan and supporter, urging him to just be himself, something he, himself, could never be, for whatever reasons, perhaps it was the times, dogged by his own insecurities and fears, unable to accept a gay life navigated from the closet, concluding “I can’t afford to be this way!”  Thandie Newton joins this female assault to the senses, having the last word, being won over by this stranger she had no initial interest in meeting, accustomed to reporting from war zones, reluctantly thinking it would be a waste of time, that she had more pressing international issues to deal with, thinking she’d just give him the brush off, yet she’s intrigued by his powerful message and the awesome implications of his cruel and difficult journey, where he may not have fame and celebrity, or the power of advertising to hype his existence and sell his message, but he’s a quiet and compelling voice, honest, open, and unpretentious, all the things John Donovan could never be, defiantly unashamed, very comfortable in his own skin, where he has transcended all those earlier social limitations and is on a completely different pathway, now baring his restless soul, like an artist, intrinsically recognizing the value of simply being yourself, THE LIFE AND DEATH OF JOHN F. DONOVAN "End Scene" YouTube (3:00).

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