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

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.

A (1 hr., 35 min.; Not Rated, probably R for a lot of harsh profanity, intense themes.)