Guest post featuring Richard Mead
I have never seen a film like “Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About his Father.”
In all seriousness, that is the only way I can begin this review. It may be short and void of complex comparisons, but it’s the only real way I can effectively write how I feel.
I first saw “Dear Zachary” this August and it nearly brought me to my knees. It is the most effective documentary I have ever seen, and by all standards one of the most important films I have viewed in nearly a decade.
It is integral to know as little as possible while sitting down to watch “Dear Zachary” for the first time. Don’t look up anything pertaining to the story, and the impact of it will be the same as I encountered. On another note, be prepared to cry and be prepared to get angry, as the information presented is more gut-wrenching than any horror film you will find.
(Deep breathe) So, let’s begin.
“Dear Zachary” was created in whole by filmmaker Kurt Kuenne, as he tells the story of the murder of his childhood best friend, Dr. Andrew Bagby. The film starts out as a love letter to the Bagby family, Andrew’s parents specifically, but after it is found that the woman who murdered Andrew was to have his baby, the real message of the film becomes clear. The viewer is then led down the same path Kuenne was on as you piece together an infuriating, yet important, series of misfortunes.
In short, “Dear Zachary” is about death, purpose and the grand mishandling of justice.
“Dear Zachary” is the most emotional film I have ever seen. Just as the film’s message shakes you, so does the effort put into it. “Dear Zachary” was made entirely by Kuenne, who filmed, produced, edited and narrated the picture. The personal connection the filmmaker has to the story he is telling never wavers and is presented in full force. Many times, Kuenne’s voice cracks and you can hear the frustration and despair in his voice as he struggles to account the facts that ended in the murder of his friend. This gives the images and facts the raw feeling they deserve.
With all of the emotion displayed, the film is still kept on rails by the artistry put into the composition of it. The editing is quickly paced, with shots lingering for only moments before cutting to the next. The only shots that do hover are those of the interviews of the friends and family of Andrew, as the true agony of the situation is shown through the unyielding sadness and hatred on the faces of the Bagbys.
“Dear Zachary” is displayed chronologically, with Kuenne walking you step-by-step through the events that took place. What is shown is also done extremely factually, which was a great contrast to the built-in frustration the film levies with its content. Everything Kuenne says and shows is backed up with police reports, court documents and first-hand accounts. This shows the great time put into the honest, yet truthful, telling of the atrocities handed to the Bagby family. This is a true story, and it’s truly horrific.
If it isn’t apparent yet, this film is very, very, deeply saddening. More along the lines of depressing. But it’s important which makes the experience worth every tear.
Now before I go on a tangent about the motion picture industry and the ignorance of independent films by the masses, I will just say this: No one you know has seen this movie.
“Dear Zachary” was given an almost non-existent theatrical release and only grossed a tad over $18,000 at the box office. It wasn’t until its second-wind release on Netflix the film began to garner the attention it, and its story, deserved. Now, the critics who have seen it pour over its quality, which has translated into a 94% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a complete five stars on Netflix’s viewer rating.
If one person watches this movie because of this review, I have succeeded in my mission. There’s no grander scheme or drawn out social commentary to be found in “Dear Zachary,” just a filmmaker with a story to tell.
I don’t rate films, because I feel it to be a bit pretentious. But if I were to, “Dear Zachary” would be as close to a perfect score as I could hand out. It’s still streaming on Netflix, so take advantage of it. It is also available for free on YouTube as of now.
This is a rare one; don’t let it pass you by.
Richard Mead is a Michigan-based journalist and columnist who has accumulated over 300 published articles in the greater Big Rapids area. He has spent most of his young-adult life studying film and seeking out independent and over-looked movies to dissect. In short: Part-time pseudo critic, full-time film aficionado.