Unbalanced and Extraordinary: Dear Zachary

Kurt Kuenne’s documentary, Dear Zachary, is all at once amateur, over-the-top, subjective, sentimental, horrifying, beautiful, and unfinished. The first thing you notice about the film is that it is small. It was made on a shoe-string budget by a friend of the Bagby family and was edited over the course of several years.

The film’s structure is unsound. Sometimes the looseness of the film feels intentional. There are scenes where the narration is the only thing keeping it together, as if a mistake in the filming forced the documentary in a direction that Kuenne was uncomfortable taking. There are interviews that are ripped to shreds in the editing because it’s clear that the wrong questions were asked. The timeline moves back and forth with no order. Inserts of home movies interrupt the flow of the film in ways that startle the viewer. The editing actually distracts from the picture, making everything feel crowded, fussy, and unprofessional.

When I started watching the film, I realized that there was a serious problem. It begins with a narration by Kuenne where he describes his relationship with the subject of the film. The subject, Andrew Bagsby, was murdered in the early 2000’s, and Kuenne decided to make a film in tribute to Andrew by documenting the years following his death. The film includes hundreds of interviews and home movies concerning Andrew. It becomes clear early on that Kuenne’s affection for Andrew is strong, perhaps too strong, for the kind of documentary it appears to be.

The film–at least the first half–is a parallel narrative that documents Andrew’s early life as well as the investigation of his murder. While the bits about his early life are charming, they definitely lean on the side of sentimental. Swelling piano music fills the soundtrack every time somebody mentions Andrew, and this style begins to wear on the viewer. The film tries too hard to make us immediately love Andrew, and it seems to not trust that we can do it on our own without the amateurish techniques employed by the filmmaker.

However, I decided to keep watching, seeing as the film has been getting rave reviews almost unanimously for three years. And I’m happy that I did.

To be clear, the film is not kidding. Its sentimentality is sincere, almost too sincere, and in this way the final half of the film is a devastating blow. I don’t want to spoil the story for you, as the development of the increasingly complicated plot is half of the brilliance of the documentary, but I will say that Dear Zachary turns into a surprisingly upsetting, and shocking, piece of documentary filmmaking.

It takes on an impressionistic form. The awkward editing and schmaltzy piano is turned against the viewer as the film continues. As Kuenne’s story becomes more unbelievable, so, too, does the way in which he tells the story. The talking heads begin to speak over one another. Various visual and aural motifs begin to repeat themselves in interesting ways. The film begins to fold in on itself. Something magical happens.

What begins as a pretty standard dateline episode turns into a wrenching true story told in an explosive way. That’s not to say that the film doesn’t have its problems, but that Dear Zachary is one of the more fresh documentaries I’ve seen in a while. And part of its excellence stems from its unpretentious style. From its unpolished esthetic.

I highly recommend the film, which is on Netflix Watch Instantly, and runs 90 minutes.

I give it 7/10 excellent second acts.

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