Last fall, Canadian wunderkind director Xavier Dolan’s latest effort, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival to... very little acclaim. It earned just one star from The Guardian, which called it a “wild misfire,” while Variety described it as “an over-the-top celebration of Dolan himself” and “ecstatically self-indulgent filmmaking.” Whew.
But, as someone said before the age of social media, all press is good press, and maybe it’s better to have critics feeling strongly one way or the other about your work than feeling nothing at all. In any case, audiences will soon have the chance to judge The Death and Life of John F. Donovan for themselves—it’s got a trailer, finally, and it’s got European release dates (March 7 in Italy; March 13 in France). (No American premiere has been announced yet.)
The trailer opens with Thandie Newton’s unmistakable voice saying, “We know how things started.” Mysterious! “He answered one of your fan letters, and then an unlikely correspondence began, et cetera, et cetera. But why don’t you back it all the way up to how things started with you and John F. Donovan?” Enter Ben Schnetzer, the 28-year-old American actor best known for Goat, a now-adult who struck up a pen-pal-ship with Donovan, a closeted American television actor played by Kit Harington, as a child. (Schnetzer’s younger self is played by Jacob Tremblay, the child actor best known for his role as Brie Larson’s adorable son in the otherwise-not-adorable, very harrowing Oscar winner Room. Schnetzer adopts an English accent, sort of; Tremblay does not.)
What ensues, it seems, is a reflection on how their letters became a national scandal, and why; memorably, in the trailer, Natalie Portman (playing Schnetzer/Tremblay’s mother) tells her 11-year-old son, “You lied, and you’ve lied for years.” The film was inspired, in part, by a letter Xavier Dolan wrote to Leonardo DiCaprio when he was eight, as he revealed at TIFF last year. The film also stars Paris Hilton’s former fiancé Chris Zylka, Susan Sarandon, and Kathy Bates; previously, there was a whole separate storyline with Jessica Chastain (and Bella Thorne, as her younger self) that was eventually cut. We shall be awaiting John F. Donovan's American release with bated breath.