36 Films: Dear Zachary (2008)

For 36 days straight, we’ll be exploring the famous 36 Dramatic Situations by presenting a film that exemplifies each one. From family killing family to prisoners in need of asylum, we brush off the 19th century list in order to remember that it’s still incredibly relevant today.

Whether you’re seeking a degree in Literature, love movies, or just love seeing things explode, our feature should have something for everyone. If it doesn’t, please don’t make us watch this movie without a full box of Kleenex nearby.

Part 14 of the 36-part series takes a look at “Loss Of Loved Ones” with Dear Zachary.

The Synopsis

A medical resident named Andrew Bagby is found shot to death in a parking lot in Western Pennsylvania. When his ex-girlfriend announces she’s pregnant with his son, Andrew’s childhood friend sets out to collect video memories from other friends and family to share with the boy when he grows up. The friend, Kurt Kuenne, alternates his documentary between interviews with Andrew’s parents, distant cousins, med-school friends, and others, alongside the unfolding narrative of the investigation into his murder.

The Situation

“Loss Of Loved Ones” – The core of this situation, the final one on Georges Polti’s classic list, is simply someone seeing (or learning about) the death of someone that they love. What happens next isn’t important in regard to the situation… it’s entirely about the loss itself.

It’s easy to find this scenario playing out in literally hundreds of films, and picking one that best embodies the sense of loss, despair, and emptiness that comes with the death of a loved one is difficult. The temptation to choose a story that evolves into a revenge tale is strong as retribution is a powerful force in cinema. There is no revenge in Dear Zachary. There is no traditionally cathartic roller-coaster ride with bad guys getting what they deserve. There is only loss. But it’s the purest and most affecting cinematic example of the ‘Loss Of Loved Ones’ scenario that you will ever see. I’ve watched the film three times now, and my reaction has yet to differ. I cry like a little schoolgirl.

The Movie

Kuenne’s film is a personal story with a public element, equal parts biography and Dateline-type investigation into the crime itself. The two halves work well as independent stories, but in combination they become a potent and powerful tale of love done right and love gone wrong. Kuenne’s closeness to the subject makes his narration inherently more emotional, even to the point where his voice actually chokes up as he relates some of the events to the viewer. That breakdown would be unprofessional and ill-advised under most circumstances, but here it serves to drive home the loss Kuenne and the others feel.

There are more facts to the story than have been revealed here, and that’s intentional. The movie should be watched with as little advanced knowledge as possible for the viewer to get the full effect of what one man’s life can mean to so many. It’s impossible not to share the pain, frustration, and anger experienced and expressed by David’s parents. Not simply because they’re such good and incredibly kind people (which they are), but because they’re parents forced to bury their only child after a heinous crime. Their story may not be unique, but its presentation will leave you wrecked.

Dear Zachary‘s subtitle is A Letter To His Son About His Father, and while that’s true it’s also a letter to viewers beyond just Zachary. It’s a film for  everyone who ever knew David as well as everyone who will never have that chance. It’s also a reminder for anyone with family and friends of their own that the future holds no guarantees. But in the end, the movie is a letter to David’s mother and father about their son. It’s beautiful, devastating, and heartbreaking, and unlike most films that are simply about a loss, Dear Zachary will make you feel that loss almost as if it was your very own.

Bonus Examples: Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, Finding Nemo, Gladiator

Click here to read our entire series of 36 Dramatic Situations, 36 Movies

Supplication – The Most Dangerous Game

Deliverance – The Rescuers

Crime Pursued By Vengeance – Death Wish

Vengeance Taken For Kindred Upon Kindred – The Lion King

Pursuit – Silence of the Lambs

Disaster – Airplane!

Falling Prey to Cruelty/Misfortune – Misery

Revolt – Lucky Number Slevin

Daring Enterprise – The Professionals

Abduction – The Chaser

The Enigma – Se7en

Obtaining – There Will Be Blood

Enmity of Kin – Once Were Warriors

Rivalry of Kin – Grumpy Old Men

Murderous Adultery – Match Point

Madness – Grizzly Man

Fatal Imprudence – The Fly

Involuntary Crimes of Love – Oldboy

Slaying of Kin Unrecognized – Halloween

Self-sacrifice for an Ideal – Hunger

Self-sacrifice for Kin – Harakiri

All Sacrificed for Passion – A Single Man

Necessity of Sacrificing Loved Ones – The Seventh Continent

Rivalry of Superior vs Inferior – Toy Story

Adultery – In the Mood For Love

Crimes of Love – Dog Day Afternoon

Discovery of the Dishonor of a Loved One – Festen

Obstacles to Love – I Love You Phillip Morris

An Enemy Loved – Underworld

Ambition – Wall Street

Conflict With a God – The Truman Show

Mistaken Jealousy – My Best Friend’s Wedding

Erroneous Judgment – The Contender

Remorse – In Bruges

Recovery of a Lost One – Gone Baby Gone

Loss of Loved Ones – Dear Zachary

Rob is the Chief Film Critic of Film School Rejects. He doesn't eat cheese on weekdays.

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