Eric D. Snider

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (documentary)

Movie Review

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (documentary)

by Eric D. Snider

Grade: A

Released: October 31, 2008


Directed by:

In November 2001, a man named Andrew Bagby died in Pennsylvania. His lifelong best friend, Kurt Kuenne, a filmmaker, set out to honor Andrew's memory by interviewing everyone who loved him and compiling it into a little movie. The result, "Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father," is one of the most heart-wrenching, emotionally exhausting films I've ever seen -- and not for the reasons you'd expect.

Andrew, who was 28 when he died, was apparently adored by all who knew him. He was easy-going, charming, self-effacing, and eminently good-hearted. He had just become a doctor and was doing his residency in the small community of Latrobe, Penn. Kuenne, demonstrating an admirable knack for film editing and compilation, rapidly shows us one testimonial after another from Andrew's friends, relatives, and co-workers. Before you know it, you're a little misty-eyed over the memory of a decent man who tried to make the world a better place. And you didn't even know the guy!

But in addition to being a memorial for a lost friend, "Dear Zachary" is also an account of Kuenne's own moviemaking process. It took months to travel the world and interview all these people, and during that time an extraordinary series of events took place that changed the whole project. Kuenne expertly weaves these facts with Andrew's life story, revealing crucial bits of information piece by piece.

What kind of events are we talking about? Well, for one thing, Andrew was murdered. We learn that right away. The killer was a mentally unstable ex-girlfriend, the sort of woman who is frequently the object of restraining orders. What's more (and hence the film's title), that ex-girlfriend was pregnant with Andrew's child when she killed him.

I'm not going to tell you anything else about the film's story, and you should avoid people who want to. See it unspoiled and let the full weight of it hit you in the gut like it did me. Rare is the film that can reduce a room full of movie critics into a sobbing mess, but this one does it.

In addition to being a tribute to Andrew, the film also becomes a true-crime documentary, following the mishandled case of Andrew's killer through one frustrating turn after another. Having fled to her native Canada, she is let out on bail pending extradition, even though she's been accused of first-degree murder. In the logic of the judge, she's not a danger to the general public because her alleged crime was specific -- in other words, she's already killed the one person she wanted to kill, so there's no need to fear her now.

But the movie is also a portrait of Andrew's parents, David and Kate, one of the most saintly, perfectly matched pairs you'll ever see. They move to Newfoundland to oversee the legal proceedings. They want the best life for their unborn grandchild, even if it means interacting with the child's mother, who killed their son. The trials and tribulations these two experience would break most people, yet they persist. As one friend of the family says, "I think God put some people down on Earth just to be examples for the rest of us."

Kuenne has no interest in making a fair, objective documentary of the murder case, nor in presenting an unbiased view of the Bagby family. Nor should he -- this started as a personal project, and it remains one even though it's now of interest to outsiders, too. His method of storytelling is clear and concise, and he's unafraid to use music and editing to maximize the story's emotional impact.

We cry at movies for a variety of reasons. We cry when they feature tragic events, or when they depict good people triumphing over adversity, or when they remind us of our own treasured friends and family. "Dear Zachary" hits all those buttons and more. It is almost indescribably painful, yet just as powerfully inspiring, a mix of good and evil and victories and setbacks that are sure to move even jaded viewers.

Grade: A

Not rated, probably R for a lot of harsh profanity, intense themes

1 hr., 35 min.

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This item has 12 comments


    Just a comment.
    It seems like lately you're reviewing far fewer movies ahead of time. I noticed with Oct 10 almost here you haven't reviewed any movies from that week.

    I like your taste and reviews so ....come on!

  2. Amp says:

    As a show of his professionalism, Eric doesn't post reviews until opening day, in accordance with movie studios' preference. Exceptions (on occasion) are for movies that screened at film festivals, like "Dear Zachary".

  3. Randy Tayler says:

    Sad movies are hard for me. Can you at least tell us if Andrew comes back to life in the end?

  4. Carrie says:

    To Randy Taylor:

    Hint - He doesn't.

  5. Lola says:

    I teared up just reading the review. What a mess I'd be watching the actual movie.

  6. Pat says:

    I want to cry already.

  7. Lauren says:

    I just caught this movie on MSNBC. I'm still in tears. That was rough..even with commercial breaks every 8 minutes, the emotional weight of each segment never eases up on you.

  8. Smash says:

    I just finished watching my DVR-ed, MSNBC version of the film. Even after reading Eric's review, I wasn't prepared for how emotionally enthralling and gutwrenching it would be. "Indescribably painful" is actually a pretty accurate descriptor (how ironic). Kurt did an amazing job pulling the viewer into the circle of the Bagby family and their friends. I actually feel like I've missed out on being Andrew's friend! I'm so glad I watched this alone, because the tears started about 30 minutes into the movie, and were pretty much continuous for the last 45 minutes of it.

  9. keerstah says:

    I finally watched Dear Zachary today. I got upset. I cried like a baby. And I felt like there is good in people after all. Thanks for recommending this one.

  10. brandt says:

    Just an FYI, "Dear Zachary" is now out on Netflix. It's coming to my doorstep on Thursday, so there isn't a big rush on it. Grab it while you can.

  11. Katy says:

    I read your review a while ago, but I only recently requested a copy of Dear Zachary from the library. I watched it earlier today and it is completely deserving of the A you give it. It is genuine. The love of these people touches you in its intensity and generosity. It is funny, infuriating, sad, maddening, and ultimately hopeful.

    Bad things sometimes happen to good people, and the best people soldier on and find a way to make something good out of it anyway. This is that story, although you don't realize it until afterward.

    Phenomenal. Get your mitts on a copy.

  12. Stacy says:

    I never knew what it meant to have your hair stand on end from simply watching a movie until that "full weight" you speak of hit me two thirds through the movie. I mean, I *literally* could feel ever little hair on my scalp and neck when it hit me. I don't think any scene in a horror or suspense movie could have gotten to me more. For a moment I thought I was going to be sick. I yelled at the computer screen, "NO!" And let me tell you, the first half of the movie didn't grip me as much as it did most people writing. I am pretty resilient to the heartfelt testimonies, even as genuine as they were (although, the dad's rage was tough to bear). Maybe if I had opened my heart up to them a little more, the shocker wouldn't have hit me so hard. Or maybe it would have been worse. Whatever the case, I just did not see that last third of the movie coming.

    (Sorry for the double post, my little emphasizers messed it up I reckon.)

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