IT IS VERY HARD to write a review of Kurt Kuenne’s Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father because so much of this documentary film and its characters must be judged in the context of the events it describes. And not only hard but frustrating, because in omitting details that may ruin the enjoyment of the film for viewers I must necessarily restrain myself from expressing my admiration for some of the extraordinary people featured in this film.
Dear Zachary was conceived as something of a pet project for filmmaker Kurt Kuenne, whose close friend, Andrew “Bags” Bagby, was murdered by his former girlfriend, Shirley Turner, in Derry Township, Pennsylvania, in November, 2001. Turner abandoned her home in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and relocated with her oldest son to St. John’s in Canada, where police investigating the death of Andrew Bagby found in Turner’s rubbish ultrasound printouts which confirmed the conception of a baby with Bagby shortly before his death. The eponymous Zachary is Bagby’s son, whom Kuenne wanted to show the kind of man his father was.
Kuenne is ideally placed to undertake this task. Not only is he a documentary filmmaker who grew up with Bagby in the suburbs of San Jose, California, but Bagby appeared in nearly all Kuenne’s home movies over the years and footage taken from these films is used throughout Dear Zachary. When Kuenne became a professional, Bagby invested in his films with money he had saved for medical school.
But this film is poorly made. The narration is rushed and monotonous, far more suited to an episode of The Twilight Zone than the tragic subject matter of the film, and scenes and shots are edited together in a slapdash, wild way, jumping erratically from horrifying to comedic to heart-warming one after another. The score, which was also composed by Kuenne, is so over the top at times that it risks transforming what is essentially a very serious and very sad story into something laughable.
And yet, in spite of all this, Dear Zachary achieves precisely what is sets out to achieve, which is to paint a picture of a truly extraordinary man–extraordinary not on account of some great, singular accomplishment, but extraordinary for the way in which he lived his life. It becomes clear early on in the film that Andrew Bagby profoundly affected everyone he encountered with his kind and amiable personality. (There is a lengthy montage dedicated solely to a staggering number of Bagby’s friends saying that they wished him to be the best man at their wedding.) What also becomes clear early on is that Bagby’s personality is no accident, but a consequence of his raising by his remarkably kind and loving parents, David and Kate, whose strength is an unintended takeaway theme of the film.
The film’s B-movie style is at times jarring, but nevertheless feels deeply personal to its creator, and therefore deeply appropriate for the essence of the film–or at least for the intended essence of the film–which is the simple kindness and modesty of ordinary people. And so in spite of the myriad cinematic sins it commits, Dear Zachary is touching, tragic, and altogether a very good film.