Xavier Dolan Steals TIFF's Canadian Conference (Again)

Jacob Tremblay in Xavier Dolan's The Death and Life of John F. Donovan
Jacob Tremblay in Xavier Dolan's The Death and Life of John F. Donovan Courtesy of TIFF
I tip my hat to Xavier Dolan! The Québécois wunderkind stole the TIFF Canadian press conference two years in a row with the same movie. TIFF Artistic Director Cameron Bailey pulled a rabbit out of his hat by making the surprise announcement that Dolan’s long-awaited English-language debut The Death and Life of John F. Donovan would World Premiere as a Special Presentation. The news was confirmed by the festival press office via a release sent immediately following the announcement.

Dolan’s Donovan was widely expected to be the highlight of last year’s Canuck contingent at TIFF and fueled ample speculation at the 2017 conference when it didn’t show, which was further confused when produced Nancy Grant told press it would still debut that fall. (So props to the programmer who said, “It wasn’t ready!” last year.) After a year of editing, which including axing star Jessica Chastain from the film entirely in February, the absence of Dolan again this year was a talking point when the list of Canadian films, released earlier in the morning, didn’t include him. Who knows or cares why TIFF waited for the big reveal, but they added a lot of excitement to a line-up that needed a little more swagger on the home field.

Donovan is ready to strut the red carpet with a cast that includes Room’s Jacob Tierney and Game of Thrones’ Kit Harrington with Natalie Portman, Susan Sarandon, Thandie Newton, Kathy Bates, Emily Hampshire, Sarah Gadon, and Adele in her film debut. The film features Tremblay’s child actor reminiscing about his experience with a late great star, John F. Donovan (Harrington) via letters.

Aside from the excitement on the Dolan front, TIFF CEO Piers Handling got the event off to a cordial start by making the first remarks of his final festival with TIFF. After 36 years with TIFF, Handling’s support for Canadian film is invaluable and he leaves a strong legacy for the fest. Handling noted that TIFF is riding the wave of change in the industry and intends to be bold and brave like the filmmakers shaking up the scene.

Lots of affection was also to be found for hometown hero Rob Stewart swelled when news that his last film, Sharkwater: Extinction, would be a special event. It provided a fitting endnote to the line-up list. Stewart’s parents attended the event and warm, supportive applause greeted them.

Another highlight was a fiery speech by Angry Inuk director Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, who spoke on behalf of The Grizzlies, which she produced, and talked about the value of the collaborative production that let her see her Inuit community represent itself onscreen. The film, directed by Miranda de Pencier (who produced Beginners), features a predominantly Inuit cast and crew in a shoot in Nunavut. Arnaquq-Baril, who has been at the forefront of conversations for self-presentation for Inuit and Indigenous filmmakers, praised the collaboration and promised ample feels.

Otherwise, the s’mores were gooey and the wine was fine. The only other big omission remaining is Bruce McDonald’s Dreamland, which could show up in Midnight Madness if it’s ready. Genèse from Philippe Lesage is also a bit of a surprise absence since TIFF pulled him into the spotlight when The Demons was a sleeper hit in Canada’s Top Ten a few years ago. I think Lesage is the kind of up and coming auteur who could be primed to represent Canada in Platform…if not, I owe David Davidson 20 bucks.

Get the Canadian line-up here.