Overview: EVERY BRILLIANT THING strikes a delicate balance between sobering loss and cathartic laughter. Adapting the hit off-Broadway one-character show of the same name written by Duncan Macmillan and starring British comedian Jonny Donahoe, the film recounts a life lived in the shadow of suicide. Emmy winners Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (HBO’s MAPPLETHORPE: LOOK AT THE PICTURES and WISHFUL DRINKING) produce and direct the heart-wrenching yet humorous presentation about depression and the lengths we will go to for those we love.
Filmed in 2015 at New York City’s Barrow Theatre, this documentary opens as Donahoe greets the arriving audience with hand-written notes instructing them to participate when called upon. He then proceeds to tell a story spanning nearly three decades and several life-changing events, starting with a young boy’s eye-opening first brush with death (his childhood dog), evoking laughter and tears in equal measure.
Expectations: I’ll admit that I have never heard of this stage show; at least it’s making a buzz in NYC. One question is whether this performance accurately translates well to film. Evidently, HBO thinks it does or this documentary wouldn’t exist, but that remains unanswered for me. The other question is whether this viewer is duly affected like the audiences that have seen this show live. That verdict is out too until I spend the next hour watching it for myself.
Gut Reaction: Mr. Donahoe is good at what he does. As a performance piece, he commanded the space, keep it lively and moving and thoroughly engaged his audience. It helped that he was working in a small theater-in-the-round space and that this one-man-show included the audience’s participation. It played out as a well-done piece because of it. He had the audience read from his list of ‘brilliant things’ and even had some, who luckily and effectively, play out key roles in his life. Audience members took on a veterinarian, a lecturer, a teacher and also his wife and his father. It was filled so much with this interaction that you almost forgot the real meaning of the show & film.
As any good play, there is plenty of laughter to be had punctuated at the right times with a bit of dramatic seriousness. When that serious tone surfaces it snaps you back to what this is about. It appears to be about generating a “list of brilliant things” throughout his life until you are reminded why that list was started in the first place. He compiled this list to try to keep his depressive and suicidal mother focused on the good things in life. It covered everything, a million total, from “peeing in the sea” to “Mork and Mindy.” Along the way, he experienced romance and an appreciation for vinyl records and also the fear that he too might be faced with depression.
Though his mother did not beat the odds he has and has turned it all into this performance. I could not help but wonder how emotionally exhausting it must be for him to play out his life over and over like this. It must be some cathartic therapy for him. And it must be incredibly important to him to pass on the notion of “listing the brilliant things” in life. He has accomplished that.
In Conclusion: Donahoe’s story could have easily been a lecture about depression/suicide or a book, but he has enlivened it and made an impact with it far better, I think, with the performance piece, it has become. It takes the negativity of the mental illness and turns it into a positive quest to find the things in life with staying around for. And though, he doesn’t add to the list today he still has it. How he still is in possession of it to this day is just one of the interesting stories in EVERY BRILLIANT THING. Let’s push depression aside by capitalizing on his list and taking in this documentary.
Next: That is the last documentary for 2016. The first one of the new year will be BEWARE THE SLENDERMAN debuting Monday, January 23 at 10:00pm after THE YOUNG POPE 04.
About The Author
Editor at Large of HBOWatch.com and the internet's foremost HBO expert.