In 2006, 11-year-old Rupert Turner (Jacob Tremblay) strikes up a secret epistolary friendship with his TV star hero, John Donovan (Game of Thrones star Kit Harington), before he dies of an overdose, devastating the young boy.
Eleven years later, he’s written a book of his experience, about which he is interviewed by a reluctant reporter, Audrey Newhouse (Thandie Newton). Almost all films, no matter how dull, poorly made or simplistic, have something of value to offer – art is driven by discourses and ideologies that by their very existence are interesting. What discourses, then, drive The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, the morally vacuous, artistically redundant and pretentious seventh feature from actor-director Xavier Dolan?
There is at least a professional and highly skilled crew working behind the highly suspect material, and the lighting, colouring, and costume and set designs are all top-notch. Sadly, if anything, the film’s decent technical elements highlight its artistic failings all the more starkly. The fundamental problem is with Dolan’s screenplay. With an ear for dialogue seemingly forged in tin, Dolan’s beleaguered characters don’t so much speak to one another as recite an approximation of humanese written by Googlebot.
Once you’ve noticed the weird way that characters talk at, not to, each other, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that you can write this shit, but you sure as hell can’t say it. The characters’ general behaviour makes even less sense than their speech: teachers don’t abandon busloads of children to call on their favourite student; loving mothers don’t slap their 11-year-old children for writing letters, and six-year-old boys don’t make secret pen pals with A-list celebrities without someone finding out. In short, people just don’t go on like this.
It’s a problem compounded by Dolan’s decision to shoot most of the action in close up. It’s certainly a bold decision, but it means that scenes have no sense of their own physical space, rendering the already confusing dialogue even more difficult to follow. A dinner-time argument with Donovan’s family builds no tension nor establishes any emotional stakes, and with little sense of the relationships between the characters, they quickly devolve into squawking voice-boxes shouting incoherently at each other.
Disorienting editing and emotional intensity are powerful tools, but when literally every interaction is rendered the same way, with no sense of pacing, spatial geography, or of the ebb and flow of a scene, bold stylistic choices are meaningless. You can crib as many crash zooms from Scorsese as you like, but without understanding the context which renders those devices meaningful, it’s just so much technical posturing borrowed from more able filmmakers.
Donovan’s real crime, however, is its palpable hatred towards women. There are three key maternal figures in the film, Rupert’s mother Sam (Natalie Portman), John’s mother, (Susan Sarandon), and Newton’s older journalist, Audrey and all three receive dressings down from the Special Boys. When the film decides they have sufficiently repented, redeems them by allowing them to once again see just how Special their Boys are. It’s difficult to choose just one example, but the scene in which the adult Rupert (Ben Schnetzer) tells off Newton for pointing out his ‘first-world mishap’ privilege is eye-wateringly offensive, not to mention tone-deaf.
Ultimately, the death of John F. Donovan is from a thousand tiny cuts. A baffling screenplay in which all the characters speak in the same, pretentious voice, stylistically vapid direction and non-existent drama add up to a fatal verdict. Dolan has been a darling of Cannes in recent years and has demonstrated obvious skill behind and in front of the camera. Let’s just hope that this is not an indication of things to come.
The Toronto International Film Festival 2018 takes place from 6-16 September.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell