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Dear Zoe

average rating is 3 out of 5


William Hemingway


Posted on:

Feb 19, 2023

Film Reviews
Dear Zoe
Directed by:
Gren Wells
Written by:
Marc Lhormer and Melissa Martin
Sadie Sink, Theo Rossi, Kweku Collins, Jessica Capshaw

It is written somewhere in the annals of the YA author's handbook that if your young adult novel is to be made into a film then your main character must have some horrifically giant obstacle to overcome, something so terrible and all encompassing that any regular, mature person would baulk at the insurmountable difficulty facing the young protagonist. If they don't already live in a dystopian future society a-la the Hunger Games (2012-2015), Maze Runner (2014-2018) or Divergent (2014-2016) series then they must face tragedy on a similar scale just with a more personal aspect, such as a terminal illness in The Fault In Our Stars (2014) or loss in All The Bright Places (2020). Casting Shailene Woodley in your film is also a good idea.


In Dear Zoe most of these aspects are in place, with the film being an adaptation of Philip Beard's 2004 novel in which Tess DeNunzio pens a letter to her younger sister who died the previous year, on the day of the September 11th attacks, with Tess believing that she was to blame. With Shailene Woodley now in her thirties it was up to the producers to get the next, hottest new star to play the lead and so Sadie Sink, of Stranger Things fame and now also wowing audiences alongside Brendan Fraser in The Whale (2022), was given her chance to step up and become a leading lady.


Zoe's death obviously hit the family hard and while everyone was busy retreating into themselves, Tess' mother decided to find solace in the arms of the young grocery clerk at the local store. After finding out, and being disgusted at her mother's choices, Tess then decides to move in with her birth father (Rossi), who lives on the wrong side of the tracks in Braddock, Pittsburgh and whose life is a total mess, but who of course has a heart of gold and would do anything for his daughter. Next door, lives Jimmy (Collins), a dreadlocked drug dealer who is also something of a diamond in the rough and who also has a heart of gold – naturally – and together they all work out their issues while adapting to their new environment.


Whether it's down to Beard's source material or Marc Lhormer and Melissa Martin's script the main problems Dear Zoe has are to do with believability and relatability. The world which Tess inhabits is so far removed from reality that it becomes difficult to take any depression, sadness or trauma seriously. Any threats which would exist in the real world, such as living in a rough part of town or having an older drug-dealing neighbour slipping into a teen's bedroom at night to teach her how to smoke weed and kiss, are all whitewashed over by playing against type and any threat or conflict immediately disappears.


Similarly, the direction from Gren Wells creates this faux sound stage of poverty and simple living, where Tess and Jimmy can communicate and get across into each other's rooms from their windows, where Tess gets a summer job at an actual lemonade stand and where every teen cliché gets an airing, from winning a big cuddly toy on a date at the fair to lying on top of the lockers in the locker room, which gives the whole film an air of an early 90's TV sitcom, like Roseanne or The Cosby Show. The fact that the audio all sounds like it's from a sound stage (whether it's indoors or not) and all of the indoor scenes seem to be lit in the exact same way whether it's a home or a church or a store, only serves to compound the situation.


The saving grace for Dear Zoe comes in the form of its actors, who all determine to do the best with what they've been given, and who lift the film from a lifetime of reruns on TCM or the Hallmark channel with their performances. Sadie Sink will of course be the big draw with the film's intended audience and she holds the story together well as the central character with a very mature and nuanced performance, despite some of the make-up and wardrobe choices which were made for her. She is very ably supported by Theo Rossi as her deadbeat dad and Kweku Collins as the lovable rogue next door, with Rossi especially showing what he learned on Sons Of Anarchy and Luke Cage by making the character his own and breathing life into even the most hackneyed of scripts. Jessica Capshaw also adds some emotional resonance as the mother who faces losing everything.


What Dear Zoe lacks in narrative it (nearly) makes up for in performance. While it may be a film that is all sentiment and no heart, all melodrama and no realism, the actors show in every scene what this opportunity means to them and manage to stop it from being just another teen drama that's really about nothing at all.

About the Film Critic
William Hemingway
William Hemingway
Digital / DVD Release, Indie Feature Film
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