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TIFF 2018: The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, Vox Lux

Natalie Portman stars in two films at TIFF this year that examine the cult of celebrity from incredibly different angles. While one seems to be cynical in its examination of the religious zeal with which we increasingly seem to be embracing our pop princesses, the other understands the power of celebrity to change a person’s life. Both films have their issues, but they are also common in how much they are explicitly the product of their writer/directors, two young men who will almost certainly return to TIFF again and again for years to come.

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Xavier Dolan has been a TIFF darling for some time, as the fest appropriately embraces Canadian talent, and the Montreal-born Prince of Cannes brought the World Premiere of his very personal “The Death and Life of John F. Donovan” to the Winter Garden Theatre tonight. One wouldn’t have to hear Dolan’s introduction to be able to tell that this drama has a personal background—Dolan makes films that express his passions—and this one may be his first in English but ticks a lot of the thematic boxes from his French language work. In the intro, Dolan explained how he once wrote a letter to Leonardo DiCaprio when he was a kid, hoping to one day work with him, and also offered how much he wished he saw kids like himself in the films he loved.

So it’s not surprising that Dolan’s film is the story of a kid who connects with a superstar. The kid is Rupert Turner (Jacob Tremblay), who has moved to London with his mother (Natalie Portman), and is struggling to fit in. Dolan’s script is actually structured as a flashback, with an older Rupert (Ben Schnetzer) telling his story to a reporter (Thandie Newton). Well, telling both his story and that of a penpal he had when he was a kid, a big actor named John F. Donovan (Kit Harrington). One day, Rupert wrote to his favorite TV star, and the star wrote back, a couple times a month for years. John is a closeted celebrity, someone worried that coming out would derail his career. Rupert too is dealing with bullies at school who call him gay and a combative mother. The idea that an expressive kid in London and a TV star could share a correspondence that would inspire both of them is kind of an encouraging one. Dolan is curious about how people move through the world—how they build survival mechanisms to deal with its problems—and those thematic elements are the best part of “The Death and Life.”

Of course, his film falls victim to his worst tendencies too. There are extended mother-son scenes between Tremblay & Portman and Harrington & Susan Sarandon that just don’t work, and the whole thing has a remarkably episodic structure—Kathy Bates shows up as John’s agent, for example, just to chew some scenery. And I hated the structure of the “flashback interview,” not only because the scenes between Newton and Ben Schnetzer (as the older Rupert) are horribly written and staged. And you have to be willing to go with a director who uses "Stand by Me" in a key scene during which characters realize they need to stand by each other.

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For some, this description probably makes their skin crawl, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say Dolan sometimes finds that emotional vein. He embraces theatricality and pop music to such an extreme that he can actually turn Jon Snow singing along to Lifehouse's “Hanging by a Moment” into a moment of catharsis. And Tremblay gives a phenomenal performance, capturing the joy we had when we first discovered the world of celebrity and refusing to play this character as the cliché he easily could have become. In a cast of superstars and Oscar winners, the kid steals it. He’s reason alone to forgive most of the major flaws of “The Death and Life of John F. Donovan,” I just wish there were so few of them that I could recommend seeing his work more whole-heartedly.

I have similar mixed feelings about Brady Corbet’s “Vox Lux,” although you’ll get no Lifehouse here. Corbet’s “The Childhood of a Leader” was a stunningly ambitious debut, and he arguably tops it with his second feature, which opens with one of the best 45 minutes of filmmaking I’ve seen this year. The first half of “Vox Lux” could be called “Childhood of a Pop Star,” as we meet sisters Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) and Eleanor (Stacy Martin). We actually see Celeste first on the worst day of her life, as “Vox Lux” opens with a horrifying school shooting. Celeste survives the shooting and writes a heartfelt song about the experience, which becomes a massive pop hit. In comes a manager (a great turn from Jude Law), and the girls are off to Europe to write an album and go on tour.

From the opening staging of the shooting through the production of the song to Europe, I loved the start of “Vox Lux,” but the second half loses focus when Corbet, understandably, hands it over to Natalie Portman, who plays the adult Celeste. The teen pop star has become an icon, however she’s dogged by all that comes with that, such as a few tabloid scandals and a distant daughter (also played by Cassidy). The second half of “Vox Lux” also opens with a tragedy, and one that may have ties to Celeste, but she seems more concerned about getting some white wine than a potential loss of life.

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There’s a lot to unpack in the second half of “Vox Lux” about celebrity and the blurry line between private and public life, but it’s also quite simply “The Natalie Portman Show.” She bites into the role with a thick NY accent, giving a performance that's likely divisive but never anything less than fascinating. The first half of “Vox Lux” sets up so many interesting ideas that I was surprised to see it land in the relative familiarity of an egocentric pop queen. Although maybe that’s Corbet’s point—that we now all look to people like Celeste to get over tragedy instead of religion or family. Even if I consider that point to be a bit too blurry, the ambition of this film impresses enough to warrant seeing it. And I can’t wait to see what he does next. I have a feeling I'll see it at TIFF.

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