Few films, documentary or fiction, possess the power to pick the viewer apart piece by piece emotionally, and then put them back together again. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father accomplishes that rare feat with incredible skill and candor -- not once, but twice, during its fleeting 95-minute run-time.
At its core, Dear Zachary is a powerful meditation on love, strength, and remarkable courage. But make no mistake; in order to reach that life-affirming message of hope, you the viewer must first descend through a level of despair so black and vile that you can actually feel your chest tighten and your breath quicken as your heart shatters in slow motion. At times, it seems as if whatever light exists at the end of this suffocating tunnel will most certainly be swallowed up by the darkness before you can reach it, yet thanks to the amazing dedication of one remarkable filmmaker, two enormously brave parents, and an entire army of loving, dedicated friends, this story ends not with the tragedy that threatens to define it, but with the reassurance that two people who suffered unimaginable loss have made it their life's mission to ensure that no one else be subjected to the same hell that they endured and barely survived.
By all accounts, Andrew Bagby was a rare breed: he was an only child who always got on well with his parents, inspired and supported his friends, had an endearing sense of humor, and strived to improve the lives of others by becoming a doctor. It's a profound feeling to experience a man's life by simply watching a film, and that's exactly what director Kurt Kuenne accomplishes as Andrew's remarkable tale unfolds on the screen before you. Most people are lucky if they have only a handful of people out there who care about them; to witness the number of people whose lives Andrew Bagby touched, and to hear their stories is nothing short of inspiring. Upon seeing Andrew for the first time, it's easy to see why so many people held him in such high regard. So why on Earth would anyone want to harm such a loyal and benevolent man?
That's where the story begins to swerve toward tragedy.
Andrew was away at medical school in Newfoundland when he first met Shirley Turner. He was far from home and still reeling from a particularly painful breakup at the time, so despite the fact that Turner was a notably older divorcee who already had three children of her own, the attention she lavished on him was simply irresistible to such a vulnerable soul. And while Andrew's friends seemed to sense that there was something wrong with Shirley from the very beginning, Andrew was just the kind of trusting kid who would never suspect that anyone's motives could be anything less than genuine. By the time he finished medical school and returned to the United States to begin practicing medicine, Andrew's fate -- and that of his future child -- had already been sealed. When Kuenne learned of the horrible fate that had befallen his friend, and subsequently discovered that Shirley was pregnant with Andrew's one and only child, he decided to travel across the country with camera in hand, gathering memories from those who knew Andrew so that his son, Zachary, would be able to one day see what an incredible man his father really was. To give away any more of the story would be something of a betrayal to the filmmaker, because who better to tell Andrew's tale than the friend who knew him since they were seven-year-old kids horsing around in the backyard and making movies together?
And what a story it is. If someone were to tell you the tale of Andrew Bagby's death and the events that followed, it would seem too awful to be true. And yet it is, and the manner in which it's presented is nothing short of astonishing. It's like being trapped in a nightmare in which paralysis leaves you powerless to prevent the situation unfolding before your very eyes from dissolving into disaster, but these events are far worse than any nightmare because they've already transpired in real life. Kuenne's skills as a filmmaker -- in particular as an editor -- ensure that you experience this unforgettable journey precisely as he did. A skillful layering of voices early on underscores just how highly regarded Bagby was by his legions of friends, and a furious montage when the situation reaches its vile nadir drives home the pain and shock of such a horrifying moment with the soul-crushing power of a jackhammer to the heart. Kuenne wants you to fully experience the horror of Turner's reprehensible transgression and the agony of the people it directly impacted. And you will -- if not for the powerhouse editing, then for the simple fact that you have come to know and care for these people over the course of the film.
Dear Zachary is absolutely riveting from the opening montage to the heartbreaking but hopeful final frames. It's an incredible narrative told by an immensely talented storyteller, and the result is one of the most moving, soul-stirring documentaries ever produced. Some people, quite understandably, may not wish to subject themselves to a film with the penetrating emotional power of Dear Zachary -- especially parents who have had to bear the burden of burying their own children. For viewers able to remain focused through their own tears, however, Dear Zachary is the kind of film that, once seen, will forever remain in your heart and mind.
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