Dear Zachary

Kurt Kuenne’s overpowering documentary Dear Zachary is getting a slow national release in the major cities; word is that it will be shown on MSNBC in December and come out on DVD in February. Whichever way you end up seeing it, you should.

Dear Zachary begins as a requiem of sorts for Kuenne’s childhood friend Andrew Bagby, who, evidence strongly suggests, was murdered at age 28 by his ex-girlfriend, 40-year-old Shirley Turner. Collecting reminiscences from Andrew’s friends all over the country, Kuenne never hears a bad word about Andrew, the sort of affable guy — he looked like a milder, less devious Jack Black — who naturally draws people to him.

Including, unfortunately, psychos like Shirley Turner. What did Andrew see in her? He was hefty and self-deprecating, and the intensity of her feelings for him may have overridden his misgivings — until things got too intense and he broke things off. She drove sixteen hours, got him alone in a parking lot, and very likely shot him five times. Did she actually do it? The circumstantial evidence leaves little doubt. Yet after Turner fled to her native Newfoundland, she was released on bail. Oh, yes, and she was also pregnant with Andrew’s child; and when she gave birth to their son, Zachary, she was given custody, over the strenuous objections of Andrew’s grief-stricken parents David and Kate.

Once Zachary enters the picture, Kuenne turns his project into a sort of scrapbook for the boy, filled with testaments from everyone who knew and loved Andrew. Since Andrew was also a doctor, and a damn good one, we even hear from patients grateful for his attentive care. Meanwhile, David and Kate are forced to be nice to the woman who they firmly believe murdered their son. It’s the only way they can spend even a minimal amount of time with their grandson, the only part of Andrew they have left apart from memories. We see footage of Turner playing with Zachary, and it’s fucking chilling, worse than any horror movie, because she’s clearly a sociopath using Zachary for her own ends. We see love everywhere else in the film except in Turner’s eyes; there’s truly nothing there except need and psychosis. And we see hatred, ferocious hatred, from David and Kate for the woman who ruined and continues to ruin their lives, and we understand it utterly. That they found it in themselves to put that aside for Zachary’s sake is astonishing. They, of course, would disagree; they had no choice in the matter.

The movie inspires disbelief as only a true story can. You’d laugh this twisted series of events — and it gets even more twisted and unspeakably tragic — off the screen at a fictional Hollywood film. But here it has the illogical horror of reality. Dear Zachary has been compared to Errol Morris’ seminal The Thin Blue Line, and the analogy holds water insofar as both films tackle unfathomable miscarriages of justice using stylized, subjective filmmaking. Dear Zachary moves at a sprint, its editing like a machine gun going off in your face — Kuenne might’ve watched Oliver Stone’s JFK a few times to figure out how to cram the most information into the least amount of screen time.

But the movie is far more than a true-crime report. Andrew becomes real to us via photos and footage from the teenage Kuenne’s backyard movies. His parents keep powering through the frustration and agony. We meet little Zachary, who is literally received by family and friends as the second coming of Andrew, since he looks so much like his father. Zachary represents hope, renewal. But this is life, not a Hollywood movie, and thus does not have a Hollywood ending.

Kuenne pulls out all the stops and leaves no manipulative stone unturned, but it’s almost impossible to begrudge him that. This is one of the most emotionally transparent films ever made, and its gallery of heroes and villains trumps most of what you’ll see in a multiplex this year.

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