Above all, no matter what else it is, Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father is an emotional journey. It pulls your heart out, twists your insides, punches you in the stomach, and everything else along those lines. This isn't always because of the film itself, but because the subject matter is so inherently tragic.
It's hard to discuss the movie without spoiling — as much as an actual event can be spoiled — the aspects that will leave you gutted. Still, the surface story isn't exactly hugs and puppies: Dr. Andrew Bagby was murdered by his psychotic ex-girlfriend Shirley Turner. His family and friends, including documentarian Kurt Kuenne, were understandably horrified. But there was another shock yet to come, as it was later revealed that Shirley was four months pregnant with Andrew's child.
When Kuenne discovered this, he felt it important to go on the road and interview as many of Andrew's loved ones as he could so that Zachary, as the unborn child was to be named, would one day be able to learn about his father. This initial purpose was sidetracked by the circumstances surrounding the situation, and so it is in the movie; after a few minutes of recounting old stories about Andrew, Kuenne's narration cuts in and says, "Okay, I'll come back to this later, but–" and off we go into an entirely different story, one far more layered and tragic.
Andrew's parents, David and Kathleen, realize that they must fight for the custody of the child, since Shirley is obviously a murderous nutcase. What's terrifying is that the Canadian legal system lets her walk. Not only do David and Kathleen have to give Zachary back to Shirley, but in order to spend time with him, they actually have to closely interact with the woman who gunned down their son in cold blood. This woman shouldn't be on the streets, let alone in their living room.
That's about all I'll say of the movie's content, for to say any more would be to rob you of the harrowing emotional experience. It's an experience that at times succeeds in spite of the director's more annoying tendencies.
Kuenne plays an onscreen part of this story because of his obviously personal stake in the matter, and he seems like a completely likeable guy. But, of course, he's an amateur filmmaker (remember, this originated as a home video), and it shows. His editing is rapid-fire and erratic, cutting so quickly that no piece of information is allowed to settle or lie; as soon as we learn one factoid, we immediately rush onto the next, barely allowing for some kind of context.
There are times, too, when Kuenne lets things become a little too over-the-top. I completely understand why he did what he did, as the events are awful and he is justifiably angry, but instead of letting the events speak for themselves, he shoves them in the audience's face. These are things so terrifying that we could see them at a distance and still be wounded, yet when Kuenne pushes too hard, you get the feeling that you're being manipulated, that these emotions aren't your own but the emotions that Kuenne wants you to feel.
Yet this is a raw and honest movie, and for that I admire it. Despite its shortcomings, Dear Zachary emerges as a portrait of two people, David and Kathleen Bagby, who have experienced more horror and tragedy than anyone should ever have to. This is a disturbing, immensely sad film, both for what it says about one woman's psychosis as well as the utter failure of the justice system. But when you see what David and Kathleen overcome, and the transformation that they go through, the film is also one of triumph. I have a feeling that most people would've been broken by what has happened to David and Kathleen, and though part of them has surely died, they have not taken it sitting down. They've fought back, and that's what matters.