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SXSW 2024 Film Review: ‘My Dead Friend Zoe’ Makes PTSD Real with Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris

Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) was something I never heard of growing up. I recall, as a young child, sitting and listening to my father and uncles swap stories about their experiences in WWII. Then Vietnam happened and everything changed.

My Dead Friend Zoe explores the experiences and psyches of several military veterans as they deal with the memories of experiences that can shake the soul. It was the most moving and well-done film I saw at the 2024 edition of the SXSW Conference and Festivals.

Director Kyle Hausmann-Stokes discusses the film on the SXSW stage

SXSW ran March 8 through 16. This was the 31st year of the film and TV festival, which included 118 feature films with 91 world premieres. The festival also included over 100 TV shows, short films, and extended reality (XR) experiences.

Zoe’s Best Friend

The story shows us life through the eyes and mind of the character named Merit, played by Sonequa Martin-Green (The Walking Dead, Star Trek: Discovery). She is supported by Natalie Morales (Parks and Recreation) as Zoe, Ed Harris (Westworld) as her grandfather, and Morgan Freeman (Driving Miss Daisy) as her group therapy doctor. 

Sonequa Martin-Green
Sonequa Martin-Green plays a veteran haunted by PTSD – and Zoe

The story opens with Merit and Zoe in Afghanistan, dealing with the stresses involved with life in a war zone. Their friendship manifests in their ability to find laughter even in the worst of circumstances.

Realities Intertwined

One of the things that make this such a great film is how several stories involving Merit intertwine and come to conclusions in the final scenes.

Natalie Morales plays the mysterious Zoe

It will probably be unclear to you what Zoe’s status is in many scenes. Although the film deals with serious issues, Zoe tends to be impertinent and unserious and adds some laughs. Is Zoe really there? Is she only in Merit’s imagination? What happened to Zoe?

Merit attends group therapy for her PTSD. She refuses to open up to the group. This creates a conflict with the doctor running the group, who won’t sign her paperwork until she cooperates. Zoe doesn’t help.

Merit’s mom wants her to take care of her grandfather, an iconic crotchety old curmudgeon. This particular curmudgeon is a Vietnam vet who brings a different set of perspectives to the “soldier returning home” experience than those shared by Merit.

Merit tries to get her grandfather into a nursing home. Her interactions with the counselor at the home, played by Utkarsh Ambudkar (Free Guy), provide a few light-hearted romcom moments which serve to balance the serious tone of the film.

Realities from Where?

Are the veteran-related problems presented in My Dead Friend Zoe realistic? Yes. During the Q&A after the screening of the film at SXSW, the director and co-screenwriter Kyle Hausmann-Stokes said they came from his personal experiences and relationships.

Kyle Hausmann-Stokes
Director/writer Kyle Hausmann-Stokes on the red carpet

Before becoming a filmmaker, Hausmann-Stokes was an Army paratrooper for five years. He served as a company commander in Iraq where he earned a Bronze Star. My Dead Friend Zoe is his first feature film, but prior to this project he directed films for Google, IBM, the U.S. Air Force, UPS, and the Department of Veterans Affairs.   

Add It to Your List

This is a dramedy that you will definitely want to add to your must-watch list. It has strong performances by the entire cast and will stay in your memory for a long time. The audience at SXSW laughed and cried. As of this writing, distribution of the film has not been set.

Next year’s SXSW will take place March 7 through 15. You can find out more at their website or on Twitter (@sxsw), Facebook , Instagram, or LinkedIn .

About Leo Sopicki

Writer, photographer, graphic artist and technologist. I focus my creative efforts on celebrating the American virtues of self-reliance, individual initiative, volunteerism, tolerance and a healthy suspicion of power and authority.

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