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SXSW Review: “My Dead Friend Zoe”

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | March 18th, 2024

MY DEAD FRIEND ZOE director Kyle Hausmann-Stokes at SXSW 2024 ©Christopher Llewellyn Reed

My Dead Friend Zoe (Kyle Hausmann-Stokes, 2024) 4 out of 5 stars

Director Kyle Hausmann-Stokes makes his feature debut with My Dead Friend Zoe, a poignant exploration of friendship and loss that also examines the many ways that post-traumatic stress disorder (aka PTSD) can manifest. With a strong and diverse ensemble—headlined by Sonequa Martin-Green (The Outside Story) and including Utkarsh Ambudkar (Basmati Blues), Morgan Freeman (Going in Style), Ed Harris (The Lost Daughter), Natalie Morales (If You Were the Last), and Gloria Reuben (A Second Chance at Love)—the movie proves consistently engaging. And even if some scenes descend into predictable sentimentality, the emotions at the end are all genuine.

Martin-Green stars as Merit, who comes from a family proud of both its military service and education. When first we meet her, it is 2016 and she is wrapping up a tour of duty in Afghanistan, alongside her bestie Zoe (Morales). We then jump straight from Zoe begging Merit to please “never go to some PTSD therapy group” to just such a group, post-service. It is both a funny and sad flash forward, as we realize that the movie’s title is a literal one. Somehow (details to be filled in later), Zoe is dead, though Merit can’t get her out of her own head.

l-r: Ed Harris, Natalie Morales, and Sonequa Martin-Green in MY DEAD FRIEND ZOE ©SXSW

Merit has had some recent work issues that have brought her to the group—led by Dr. Cole (Freeman)—but her biggest problem is the guilt she bears for whatever happened to Zoe. Tough as the shame is to endure, she can’t manage to engage with her fellow vets-in-therapy. Nor does she want to help out her grandfather, Dale (Harris), despite the onset of his dementia. Still, dealing with him may prove easier than handling Zoe, and so she finally, if reluctantly, relocates to Dale’s lakeside cabin, urged on by the pleas of her mother, Kris (Reuben). All the while, phantom Zoe tags along, a presence that both nags and comforts.

l-r: Kyle Hausmann-Stokes, Sonequa Martin-Green, and Natalie Morales at SXSW 2024 ©Christopher Llewellyn Reed

Dale is also a veteran—in Vietnam—and in fact was an early inspiration for Merit, motivating her desires to sign up. But he has little patience for any talk of PTSD; better to grin and bear it. Perhaps, however, he and Merit can find something to talk about. If not, there is local senior-center owner Alex (Ambudkar), who flirts with Merit, to make the time pass more quickly. Something will have to give, in any case, between Dr. Cole’s recurring phone calls, Dale’s slow decline, and Zoe’s mental intrusions. Hopefully, when it does, Merit will be able to recover.

l-r: Kyle Hausmann-Stokes, Sonequa Martin-Green, Natalie Morales, Gloria Reuben, and Utkarsh Ambudkar at SXSW 2024 ©Christopher Llewellyn Reed

Hausmann-Stokes handles the different plot elements and competing tragicomic tones with adept cinematic gusto. A veteran, himself—so are many of the other actors, as we learn in the end credits—he approaches the material with appropriate sensitivity, never minimizing trauma while also embracing the humor that makes life worth living. It’s lovely to watch the natural performances, too, along with the organic way that Hausmann-Stokes populates his movie with women and people of color in all their three-dimensional glory. Whatever occasional on-the-nose dialogue he gives us in the script, the net result of the entire enterprise is a cathartic celebration of the healing power of love and community.


Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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