There are entertaining documentaries, like Man on Wire. There are political documentaries, such as Nothing But the Truth. And then there are those utterly depressing documentaries that only come along once every couple of years. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father is one of those films.
Filmmaker Kurt Kuenne made this deeply personal film after one of his good friends died way before he was meant to. Dear Zachary is a video letter to the son of Kuenne's friend Andrew, who was violently murdered by his much older and psychotic ex-girlfriend. After breaking up with her and flying her 1,400 miles away, the crazy bitch drove back and shot him five times. Subsequently, she flees to Canada and falls into what turns out to be a very slow and ineffective legal process. While the murder is disturbing, what's worse is that Andrew's parents move up to the same Canadian town to be actively involved in the court proceedings and to spend time with their new grandson, Zachary, who is the product of Andrew and their son's murderer. Since the Canadian government fails to keep the woman in jail, the grandparents are forced to spend time with the person responsible for taking their son away from them. It only gets worse from there.
The tragedy clearly hit Kuenne hard, and while Dear Zachary is not the most composed of documentaries, its raw, emotional nature works in its favor. On the one hand, Kuenne masterfully exudes Andrew's energy and likability through old video footage and interviews with friends. He engages the audience almost immediately. At the same time, Dear Zachary feels more like a homemade photo album than a professionally conceived piece of work. It's noticeable, but not at all damaging.
The story that unfolds is something right out of Hollywood, but it's real. Regardless of the general film quality, there is something mesmerizing about this picture that grabs you in the first minute and doesn't let go until the end. The movie is frustrating, emotional and, frankly, fucked up, and Kuenne carefully intertwines the before and after events of the incident to keep things intriguing.
He also catches the audience with a sinking curveball about two thirds through the movie that even he couldn't have anticipated - or ever wanted. Just writing about it makes the hair on the back of my neck rise; just when you think the movie can't get any more depressing, Kuenne hits you with an emotional bullet.
Dear Zachary is not without its flaws, but it is one of the best documentaries I've seen in a long time. It's a movie that Kuenne would have preferred not to have made, but his testament to the life of his friend and the proceeding - and shocking - events that followed is classic. Highly recommended, unless you suffer from depression.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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