Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father

Movie review by
Tracy Moore, Common Sense Media
Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father Movie Poster Image
Tense, twisting crime docu is deeply disturbing.
  • NR
  • 2008
  • 95 minutes

Parents say

age 18+
Based on 1 review

Kids say

age 14+
Based on 3 reviews

Did this review miss something on diversity?

Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive, diverse representations in books, TV shows, and movies. Want to help us help them? Suggest a diversity update

A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Testimony to the power of family, friendship, and loyalty in preserving someone's legacy; the power of persistence in righting wrongs or working to change the criminal justice system. Illustrates the need for greater victim advocacy, particularly for children.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Andrew Bagby is shown as a kind, caring person; his parents, Kate and David, are extraordinarily devoted to their son and grandson and are impassioned activists committed to changing the legal system to better protect victims and their families. Bagby's friends and former colleagues are compassionate and supportive in preserving his legacy and are a part of his son's life.


Spoiler alert: A murder by multiple gunshots is recounted in news clips, TV broadcasts, discussions, and indirect reenactments; a woman drowns a child and then herself. 


An interview subject says Bagby's girlfriend used to describe sex between them in crass terms.


Multiple uses of "f--k"; also "hell," "s--t," "bitch," "a--hole," "Jesus Christ," "piss," and "goddamn."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Archival footage includes champagne at wedding; two men drink a beer to commemorate a friend; photo of woman who looks inebriated shown repeatedly.

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.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byZachary R. May 1, 2017
Teen, 14 years old Written byCowLikesMovies March 30, 2021


Very depressing. Just watch it.
Teen, 13 years old Written byMr. Mongo February 17, 2021

this movie is great but probably the saddest ive ever seen.

honestly I think that this movies great and even though it centers around a murder and is highly disturbing and dark I think a thirteen year old could handle it... Continue reading

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?

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love documentaries and inspiring stories

Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.

See how we rate

Streaming options powered by JustWatch

About these links

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization, earns a small affiliate fee from Amazon or iTunes when you use our links to make a purchase. Thank you for your support.

Read more

Our ratings are based on child development best practices. We display the minimum age for which content is developmentally appropriate. The star rating reflects overall quality.

Learn how we rate