There are some things that can never be done justice through words.
For instance, if I were to try to describe a sunset over the ocean to a blind man who had never seen one, no matter how poetic or descriptive my words are, there is no way I could ever convey the pure wonder of the experience. Some things cannot be described, they must be felt.
And so it is with Kurt Kuenne's profoundly moving documentary, Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father, a heartfelt tribute to a man's life as passed on to his infant son.
I will say before I begin in earnest that this is a film best experienced with as little knowledge of it as possible. A blank slate is essential for absorbing its full impact.
In 2001, Kuenn's best friend, Dr. Andrew Bagby was tragically gunned down by a psychotic ex-girlfriend, leaving behind his parents and legions of friends who adored him. But as it turns out he left behind more than that, and that his killer was pregnant with their child. Determined to retrieve their grandson Zachary from his murderer mother, Andrew's parents, David and Kathleen, head to Canada to fight a bitter custody battle, while Kuenn goes on the road to interview the people who knew Andrew best, to create a living document for Zachary of the father he never knew.
When I look back and reflect on Dear Zachary in the days to come, it is likely that I will temper my unbridled enthusiasm for it. But I think there is merit in writing this review while still reeling from my emotional response to it. This is, above all, a movie of feelings, a movie that is nearly impossible to not feel moved by in some profound way. Because what Kuenn ultimately achieves is not what he set out to do, but what he found along the way, both through tragic circumstances and through the ruminations of the people in Andrew's life. This is not only the document of one man, but a testament to love and family that resonates beyond this one family to anyone who has ever loved someone else.
Kuenne deftly avoids cloying schmaltz and sentimentality by keeping his film emotionally honest and non-exploitative. He wisely steps back and allows the story and its subject to speak for itself, never pushing it when it doesn't need to be pushed. His beautiful musical score is both gentle and heartbreaking, striking a fine balance between the tragedy of a life cut short, and the bittersweetness of a life well lived.
It would have been easy to have drowned the film in false sentiment, but Kuenne infuses his film with an undeniable humanity, at times angry, humorous, uplifting, and deeply sad. Kuenne didn't make Dear Zachary to mourn a life, he made the film to celebrate it. And through the tears, trials, and tragedies of the Bagby family, Kuenne makes a remarkable discovery - this what life is all about.
Each of us wants to leave behind a legacy, to be remembered. Not necessarily for our great accomplishments or important works, but as a good friend, spouse, or parent, an ordinary person who can bring about this kind of fond admiration in so many people just for being who they were. It is a comforting thought really, that even the most normal lives can have a huge impact and touch so many lives.
Through this film, the Bagbys will continue to touch the lives of others for generations to come. Dear Zachary somehow manages to be the most heartwrenching and most life-affirming film of the year at the same time. You can almost feel the love radiating out of every frame, from a father to a son who never met, but who will touch millions in ways they never thought possible.
GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)
DEAR ZACHARY: A LETTER TO A SON ABOUT HIS FATHER; Directed by Kurt Kuenne; Not Rated; Now playing in select cities, and will air on MSNBC on Sunday, Dec. 14.