SXSW 2024: ‘My Dead Friend Zoe’ Digs Into the Difficulty of Coming Home

Engaged in a mysterious relationship with her dead best friend from the Army, a female Afghanistan veteran comes head to head with her Vietnam vet grandfather at the family's ancestral lake house.
User Rating: 7

At the start of My Dead Friend Zoe, Merit (Sonequa Martin-Green) and Zoe (Natalie Morales) are rocking out to music while driving in Afghanistan. Zoe makes Merit promise that, once they get back home, they’ll never be the kind of people who go to a support group. Cut to some time later, and that’s just where they are. Zoe is not having it, spouting her irritation with another veteran complaining, but that’s where the film reveals what its title previews: Merit is actually sitting next to an empty chair.

Kyle Hausmann-Stokes arrives with a feature directorial debut that pays tribute to his military roots and particularly his focus on the difficult reentry back into society for veterans. For Merit, this runs in the family, with her grandfather Dale (Ed Harris), a Vietnam veteran. While facing an early Alzheimer’s diagnosis, Dale may not remember everything, what he hasn’t forgotten is that, unlike the celebratory homecoming for present-day soldiers, he had to change in the bathroom at SFO and still got spat on because they could tell who he was based on his short haircut and green duffel bag.

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In addition to the manifestation of her deceased fellow soldier, Merit has brought back with her a strict routine, one that frequently finds her acknowledging the dog tags on her door before going out for a run. She isn’t much of a people person, and she’s having trouble opening up in the support group she’s been mandated to attend due to an instance of workplace negligence. Much as the group leader Dr. Cole (Morgan Freeman), pushes her to talk and her mother (Gloria Reuben) insists that she needs to take care of Dale, she’s got her own stuff to figure out, namely the chatty and opinionated best friend who, even in death, just won’t leave her alone.

This film’s success hinges on its key storytelling device, which allows audiences to get to know Zoe through the way that Merit conjures her. The circumstances of her untimely demise remain shrouded in secrecy throughout most of the film, and Merit almost breaks down each time she tries to talk about Zoe to anyone. While the concept doesn’t fully work all the time, Morales has a great and funny screen presence, enhancing the role and creating a fully fleshed-out character from whatever memories have helped Merit to construct her. Taken as a manifestation of Merit’s survivor’s guilt, Zoe is an extremely watchable figure who gives this film much of its energy.

Martin-Green, also at SXSW with the premiere of the final season of Star Trek: Discovery, offers a relatively reserved turn, and it’s powerful to watch Merit slowly reveal more of herself. Harris is gruff and generally unpleasant, while Freeman and Reuben contribute adequately. The standout of the supporting cast is Utkarsh Ambudkar, best known for his leading role in Ghosts, as Alex, who works at the retirement home where Merit has been told her grandfather needs to become a resident. He’s charming and funny while still being the only (living) person to truly see Merit for who she is and what she needs.

After featuring Zoe and Merit together in a number of light and entertaining scenes, this film reaches its emotional apex as it finally approaches the nature of Zoe’s death. While many veterans likely don’t imagine deceased members of their units sitting next to them or giving them relationship advice, this film captures a sense of loss and discomfort with returning to something that feels all too normal. It’s a poignant tribute to veterans and the difficult journey they face coming home, unresolved in its search for solutions but determined to make its message count. 

Abe Friedtanzer’s rating for My Dead Friend Zoe is a 7/10

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