"This was a very personal story for all involved, and it showed and benefited from it ultimately." - Phil
"I loved that the director didn't attempt to interpret the legal issues as anything more than a layperson." - Shane
"Without the personal connection, it's a very special episode of Dateline." - Jon
Let’s start with just the raw emotions of this thing. I hit numerous emotions I just don’t like to deal with on a regular basis. I couldn’t help but feel pity for Andrew, the sad clown who was loved by all but himself. I got serious chills hearing the calls from Shirley talking so non-chalantly to Zachary’s “babysitters” Dave and Kate. I couldn’t help but feel exasperated when hearing about the legal proceedings and the lunacy that surround that whole saga. Then, not sadness for the big reveal of Zachary’s murder, but, much like Dave, I felt sheer anger. How could you not? The system had failed them in spectacular fashion. In the end, when Kuenne went to the roll of everyone talking about Dave and Kate… Oh it got QUITE DUSTY in the Crone household. How many movies can pull out that many emotions so effectively? I would say it’s in the single digits. It probably helps that it’s a documentary, so everything we are seeing is very real.
It would be tough to experience these emotions if Kuenne didn’t do a good job of leading the audience through the story. He set up each transition well, and built suspense for what would happen next like any good storyteller does. He maybe went a little overboard with the murder reveal, but it worked well. He needed to fill time there to give the audience adequate time to recover from the megaton he dropped at that point. The section detailing Shirley’s clear mental instability was the most well-done portion of the movie, where he splices facts about her with repeating the one judge’s lines about Shirley’s crime being specific in nature and that she was not a threat to the general public. I think I could feel my blood pressure skyrocketing during that particular portion.
Kuenne was able to lead the audience so effectively because this story was happening as he was making the movie. I used the word already, but serendipity is the only word that comes to mind when thinking about how this movie was made. Kuenne had a ton of footage of Andrew from their various movies. He had all the stuff with Zachary. He had interviews with Dave & Kate pre- and post-Zachary. With that many twists happening as he’s making the movie, Kuenne had to do quite a bit of changing his focus on the fly. We start with a purpose of one last movie with Andrew and then go into the letter to Zachary gimmick, sticking with it throughout, even after the tragedy. I did like Kuenne openly questioning why he was continuing, and finally finding reason by dedicating the movie to Dave & Kate, who went through an unimaginable hell and came out the other end… intact if nothing else. Good on Dave getting a minister to admit his plan to potentially murder Shirley was “logical.”
I was also glad that Kuenne chose an angle and stuck with it – namely, the incompetence of the court system in Canada to not get Shirley extradited. I felt like he did a good job weaving together the legal battle with the personal battle between Shirley and Dave & Kate. It helped that it was a straight chronological telling of the story, but the transitions could have been jarring if done ineffectively.
There are other issues that could certainly be explored here, namely our society’s treatment of people with clear mental health issues. This is going to only continue to become a bigger story in our society. We don’t learn much about Shirley, but we do know she left three kids behind, so a version from her POV highlighting mental health issues we have in this country is a story worth telling. However, had Kuenne focused on that, we would need quite a bit of time learning more about Shirley. Kuenne’s intention was not to humanize her, and for good reason – she did almost certainly kill his best friend. Would you want to humanize someone like that? This was a very personal story for all involved, and it showed and benefitted from it ultimately.
The fact that this is so personal is what keeps it from being perfect for me. The first 30 minutes of the movie, before we know who “Zachary” even is, was Kurt making his movie with Andrew. This was a little choppy and didn’t flow well. My only other minor complaint was the goofy moving mouths on the judges. Was this done for comedy relief? If so, it felt a little out of place, especially in the last third of the movie.
Many of my favorite documentaries start down one path and wind up somewhere completely different. Had “Dear Zachary” stayed as a letter to Andrew’s living son, it would have still been a very good documentary with some justice at the end. However, through this heinous tragedy, we end up with something very unique that we will likely never see again. It was one of those docs that, thanks to all the source material available to Kuenne, was going to be good and he just needed to make it great. I think he pulled that off.
+ Very affecting
+ Kuenne leads us through the story well
+ Has a message and sticks to it
- Early third did not flow well