A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father is a crime documentary about the 2001 murder of Andrew Bagby. It draws on interviews with friends, family members, and former colleagues about his life, with the focus on his alleged killer, ex-girlfriend Shirley Turner. It's very emotionally wrenching, due to the understandable sadness and anguish suffered by Bagby's friends and family. It contains profanity throughout (including "f--k") and a few gut-wrenching plot twists, one of which involves a heartbreaking tragedy related to a child. Though there's no graphic violent imagery, the documentary's filming style is intense and often replays emotions and new discoveries for particularly dramatic effect. It also intercuts the sound of gunshots with pictures of the deceased as a child or teenager. Best for mature teens and older, but likely to disturb anyone who watches it.
What's the story?
In DEAR ZACHARY: A LETTER TO A SON ABOUT HIS FATHER, filmmaker Kurt Kuenne sets out to memorialize his friend Andrew Bagby, who was violently murdered in 2001. What begins as a tribute to a friend -- and a lamentation that Bagby's alleged killer, ex-girlfriend Shirley Turner, fled to Canada and there roams free -- quickly becomes a custody battle when it's discovered that Turner is pregnant with Bagby's son. The Bagby grandparents move to center stage as they fight for visitation rights to their grandson, the titular Zachary, and endure an exhausting battle with the courts, who inexplicably grant Turner freedom to raise her son in spite of her clear psychological issues. And then an unexpected twist abruptly changes everyone's understanding of the case.
Is it any good?
Dear Zachary is best for older teens who can withstand the darkest of motives, the most painful of losses, and the most unforgivable of legal negligence. The subject matter in Dear Zachary is disturbing enough -- Bagby's family, friends, and former colleagues suffer terribly over his murder, to say nothing of the criminal justice system's dreadful negligence in naming and punishing his killer. But the film's style doesn't do viewers any favors. Every emotional moment is played for maximum effect, with repeated phrases, anguished tears, profanity, and pictures of Bagby as a child and young man often intercut with the sound of loud gunshots, disturbing music, and angles that give viewers the sense he's being murdered again and again on-screen.
Suspenseful plot twists in the real-life case make the emotional unease even more intense: Turner is discovered to be pregnant with Bagby's son, and now the grandparents (whose fortitude is one of the brightest spots in this tragic tale) must not only fight for custody and visitation rights but also negotiate and spend time with their son's alleged killer to be in Zachary's life. And then there's the twist that's darker and sadder than everything that comes before it, to the extent that it makes the rest of the film look like an episode of Law and Order.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father's perspective. The film has a clear bias, but, retroactively, that bias seems to be justified. How does this work in the film's favor? How does it work against it? Are documentaries obligated to be objective?
How does tragedy often bring out the worst -- and the best -- in people?
The filmmaker's style makes particular points in the documentary extraordinarily disturbing to watch. Do you think this is helpful or harmful to the film's credibility?
Are Kate and David Bagby role models? What do you think you might do if you found yourself in similar circumstances?
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