Jose Saenz’s review published on Letterboxd:
Xavier Dolan isn't exactly a filmmaker I've been following, but one of the few in his field I admire. Barely reaching his thirties, he fosters a strong, formally impressive filmography that range from sweeping to personal. One such movie was MOMMY, not only one of my favorite movies I've ever seen in my admittedly premature years of watching movies, but a poetic yet gritty portrait of overworked moms and mentally unstable sons trying to make a living with each other. It simply felt like a movie I needed, not just of how it mirrors my struggles with my personal life, but by its refreshingly distinctive filmmaking from a voice I hoped would become the next big thing.
The latter, sadly, proved not to be the case. Nobody, myself included, really loved his follow-up ITS ONLY THE END OF THE WORLD and now THE DEATH AND LIFE OF JOHN F DONOVAN is considered to be an all-career worst. At first, I felt bummed that his first English movie became a Film Festival bust, to the point where its getting an appalling 17% on Rotten Tomatoes. Still, my admiration for Dolans craft remained even a mere hour after watching this.
Because it's not APPALINGLY bad. Sure its a little too preachy, melodramatic, and massively unfocused, but there's a solid movie to make here beneath all the blunder. Basically a movie about a precocious child who befriends his TV star idol after sending letters to each other for 5 years. Things go awry when the superstar life overwhelms him along with his closeted homosexuality and drug abuse, along with the kid dealing with bullies and a single mom. All that is set in motion by a sloppy framing device by an interview with the kid, now grown up, as he reminisces this story and what it meant to him.
Yeah there's really not too much to chew on - it's like if Dolan squished together three of the most played-out stories ever and forgot to edit them properly - but there's a sense that its trying. For starters, it has a nice handle of homosexuality, how we hide it to avoid scrutiny, and how embracing it makes you feel happier. It rarely works, since the movie meanders too much and leaves almost zero focus on any interaction between Donovan and the kid (or even much focus or agency for Natalie Portmans mom character for that matter) but it just hovers long enough to be noticed.
The editing ends up becoming the movies Achilles heel. It starts randomly in Donovans bedroom, then it establishes Donovans death, then it sets up the framing device all in a clumsy 10 minutes. I can understand the poetry of filming his actual LIFE and DEATH before the movie starts, but it barely earns that much significance. It just goes in circles with derivative plot beats until the ending where it just spells it out for us. This may or may not have to do with the infamous removal of Jessica Chastain, but you can tell the editing room was not in their A-game.
JOHN F DONOVAN buries an otherwise passable English debut in a confounding picture. I wont say anything was offensive or downright thoughtless in this movie, nor is it pretentious to the point of parody, but it remains yet another swing and a miss for Dolan. I mean, the guy's still young, folks. Don't lose sight of him just yet.