Review by Cole Groth
Dear Zoe tells the story of a young woman who grapples with her unfortunate reality after the death of her half-sister. Despite a serious attempt from director Gren Wells, this film is a continuous failure of a social issue drama. Starring a less-than-stellar Sadie Sink, Dear Zoe tackles mental health issues with the nuance of a Fifty Shades of Grey movie and a similar level of discomfort from a bizarre amount of eroticism. Unfortunately, a film like this with a great premise gets so bogged down in poor production choices because this otherwise could’ve been a powerful and relevant tale.
From the get-go, the problems of this film are apparent. On 9/11, Tess DeNunzio (Sink) isn’t focused on the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center; she’s viewing the attack on a TV at the hospital where her family has rushed off after her little sister was struck and killed by a car. The gravity of her situation feels less emotional for the viewer because the look of the film is so distracting. Every shot has flat lighting, and Sink has been plastered with makeup that seems so unprofessional that it is almost laughable. Tess’s voiceover is so overbearing and sappy that it feels like an angsty teenager wrote it. Well, I suppose that’s the exact perspective we’re supposed to get, but there’s a chasm between realism and this script. While in middle school, I co-wrote, directed, and edited a film about a girl writing to her recently deceased best friend. Since the entire short film was narrated through a letter written by the leading girl, it sounded very similar to the narration given by Tess. The difference between these two films is that two hormonal 13-year-olds wrote one, and professional writers wrote the other with experience in Hollywood.
Sadie Sink has shown incredible promise as an actress in Stranger Things and the Fear Street trilogy, and it seems like she’s most comfortable with acting in period pieces. As is tradition, this outing for her takes us back to 2001 for no real reason. 2000s nostalgia is going to be pretty big soon, and it’s unclear why Wells doesn’t lean into this. This film is centered on 9/11, but… why? Nothing looks like it took place in 2001; The closest indicator is that Tess wants to name a dog she’s trying to sell after the late Colin Powell. It’s endlessly confusing and only adds to my belief that this is one of the weakest scripts of Sink’s career. She’s demonstrated her range previously, which makes her bafflingly bad scenes stand out more than they would for a less talented actress. The rest of the cast is either forgettable enough to escape criticism or similarly weak.
It’s hard to stress just how bad this script was. Marc Lhormer and Melissa Martin’s horrific screenplay jumps around from unconnected family issues to finding love to dealing with grief at an erratic pace; 94 minutes is not enough to explore any of these things, and it’s easy to tell that this was based on a book, which was probably loads better because it had time to develop Tess’s character thoroughly. By the end, there are a lot of unresolved plots, one of them being Tess’s mom (Elly Gladstone) flirting with Tess’s romantic interest. Moments like these are bizarre and uncomfortable, none of which are as painful as the heavily erotic moments between Tess and her later love interest (Kweku Collins).
While trying to find solace in her grief, Tess befriends her bad boy Jimmy Freeze neighbor. Tess is a 16-year-old, which makes her relationship with Jimmy, who’s in his early twenties, all the creepier. Each scene of their budding romance is progressively more uncomfortable to watch, and it all feels unnatural. By the end, Sink and Collins have enough chemistry to bridge the disquieting nature of their relationship, but it’s just a poor decision from everybody involved. Her relationship with her family isn't much better. For some reason, her mom and stepdad aren't focused on at all, and her dad takes the spotlight far too much. None of her interactions are very natural, and once again, it's not in a realistic way. It's just bad.
There’s something that feels so wasted in Dear Zoe. Perhaps it’s the talent of a brilliant up-and-coming actress in Sadie Sink; it could be the lack of actual relevance within the period it takes place; the horrific lighting and cinematography don’t help either. Most of all, the potentially powerful story of how a young woman deals with grief is squandered. Tess DeNunzio’s story was meant for literature because a film doesn’t do it justice, or at least, a movie of this sheer incompetence couldn’t have done it justice. What an unfortunate misfire.
Dear Zoe premieres on VOD starting November 4.