HBO slating its premiere of Every Brilliant Thing for the holiday season makes perfect sense. The film, which recently received its world premiere at DOC NYC, features the one-man show performed by British comedian Jonny Donahoe about a young boy who devises the titular list to cheer up his mother who’s attempted suicide. A wise and witty examination of crippling depression and the effect it has on family members, the uplifting piece provides a perfect antidote for the holiday blues.
Directed and produced by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures), the film showcases footage shot during three performances over two days at off-Broadway’s Barrow Street Theatre, where the show ran for 16 weeks beginning in late 2015.
The amusing and poignant theater piece is lovingly recorded in this film slated for broadcast on HBO later this year.
In the play written by Duncan Macmillan, the charismatic and funny Donahoe (who is given a writing credit) narrates the story of a seven-year-old boy who creates the list that begins with typical childlike entries such as “water fights” and “staying up past your bedtime and being allowed to watch TV.” As the unnamed narrator gets older, attends university, falls in love and gets married, the list, which eventually swells to nearly a million entries, includes such offbeat things as “peeing in the sea and nobody knows,” “the smell of old books” and “Christopher Walken’s hair.” Meanwhile, the narrator discovers, much to his heartbreak, that the list and his best intentions are not enough to prevent tragedy.
Before the show begins, Donahue hands out pieces of paper to various audience members who are later prompted to announce entries from the list. Others are called upon to play different characters, including a veterinarian who euthanizes the narrator’s dog, a schoolteacher wielding a sock puppet and the narrator’s father and girlfriend. While the fun of the audience participation is necessarily lessened by the distancing effect of video, the filmmakers, with the aid of Jason Blum’s expert editing, do an excellent job of conveying the participants’ good-natured cooperation. The affable Donahue, whose delight in performing the piece is infectious, manipulates his charges in masterful fashion.
Like the directors’ similar handling of Carrie Fisher’s one-woman show Wishful Drinking, Every Brilliant Thing is a straightforward filming of the stage show, with only the occasional gauzy flashback and use of black and white providing cinematic effects. But little embellishment is needed for this simultaneously funny and poignant piece that points out, “If you live a long life and get to the end of it without once feeling depressed, you probably haven’t been paying attention.”
Production: HBO Documentary Films
Cast: Jonny Donahoe
Directors-producers: Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato
Screenwriters: Duncan Macmillan, Jonny Donahoe
Executive producers: Jean Doumanian, Patrick Daly, Sheila Nevins
Editor: Jason Blum
Composer: David Benjamin Steinberg
Not rated, 61 minutes