A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that The Death and Life of John F. Donovan is a drama that warns of the dangers of denying your true sexual orientation. Flashbacks show 11-year-old Rupert (Jacob Tremblay) being bullied with gay slurs at school, while, in Hollywood, his pen pal/the star of his favorite TV show, John F. Donovan (Kit Harington), tries to keep his homosexuality a secret. Both are seeking acceptance, and viewers are meant to root for Donovan to embrace his true sexuality (even though he's married to a woman). A sex scene between him and another man -- which includes passionate kissing and the suggestion of oral sex -- is presented as loving and beautiful. Donovan abuses prescription drugs and smokes cigarettes, as do the preteen bullies and 23-year-old Rupert. Social drinking permeates the film; a mother who drinks too much is portrayed negatively, but, on another occasion, getting drunk is shown as a way to free yourself from your hangups. Other iffy content includes a bloody fistfight and strong language ("f--k," "s--t," etc.).
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What's the story?
In THE DEATH AND LIFE OF JOHN F. DONOVAN, young actor Rupert Turner (Ben Schnetzer) sits down with a journalist to discuss the pen-pal friendship he developed as a child with his on-screen idol, John F. Donovan (Kit Harington). Turner parallels his life at age 11 (when he's played by Jacob Tremblay) with what was going on with Donovan's life in the year leading up to his tragic, premature death.
Is it any good?
This is one of those times when you find yourself wondering aloud how so many award-winning actors could be in a movie so bad -- and the answer may be the greatest reason to watch it. The film has a strong message: Be true to yourself. In this story's case, that message applies to an actor who denies his homosexuality, resulting in self-destruction. In the case of French-Canadian director Xavier Dolan, he too deviated from the path that brought him early notice, with The Death and Life of John F. Donovan. And he has, remarkably, admitted that, in doing so, he bit off more than he could chew in making his first English language, big-budget, big-cast film. Those high stakes led to lots of oversight by disapproving financiers and producers, and Dolan ended up spending two years editing his four-hour film down to two and cutting out the antagonist entirely. Whatever happened to get it to this place, the movie -- just like its title character -- is a mess.
The Death and Life of John F. Donovan will surely be a lesson for rookie filmmakers, but it also presents a lesson for us all. It harkens back to a time (the mid-2000s) when gossip reporting was particularly deplorable and irresponsible, pursuing celebrities like game hunters -- tracking their every move and dalliance, publishing stolen nude photos from hackers, and pushing them out of the closet in the most sordid ways. Dolan spotlights the stress that kind of scrutiny puts on celebrities. It's also a good examination of how we seek acceptance, how we may try to be someone we're not to fit in, and the toll that kind of dishonesty takes. All of the cast's A-list actors deliver -- no one gives a bad performance -- but the film's disjointed editing and the distracting, moody cinematography may make you wonder why you're even watching.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the public's appetite for celebrity gossip. How much of a celebrity's private life do you think is owed to the public? Do you think giving up privacy is a fair exchange for gaining fame and fortune? How do you think you'd handle photographers and reporters following your every move?
Talk about the comparison of schoolyard bullying to the bullying that happens to Donovan by the press. What steps can we take if we experience or witness bullying?
Director Xavier Dolan is gay and writes and directs many films that focus on LGBTQ concerns. Why is representation important? Is it important for stories to be told by people who've lived a similar experience? Given the film's plot, why are inclusion and acceptance important?
How are drinking, drugs, and smoking depicted in The Death and Life of John F. Donovan? Do you think it's realistic? Is any of it glamorized?
Talk about the quote repeated throughout the film: "Style is knowing who you are." What do you think that quote means to the film? Why is it important to your own mental health to be authentic?
- In theaters: December 13, 2019
- On DVD or streaming: January 14, 2020
- Cast: Kit Harington, Jacob Tremblay, Natalie Portman
- Director: Xavier Dolan
- Studio: Entertainment One
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Middle School
- Run time: 123 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: language throughout and some sexual material
- Last updated: January 13, 2020
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