“My Dead Friend Zoe” Has World Premiere at SXSW

“My Dead Friend Zoe” was a crowd-funded first feature film from Army veteran Kyle Hausmann-Stokes, who served 5 years in Afghanistan and used his real-life experiences to craft this film (and his entire career up to this point.) He is a co-founder of the nonprofit organization Veterans in Media & Entertainment.  It is a plus that he has cast nearly all parts in “My Dead Friend Zoe” with actual veterans.


Kyle Hausmann-Stokes
Kyle Hausmann-Stokes at the World Premiere of “My Dead Friend Zoe” at SXSW 2024.

Following its World Premiere at SXSW on Saturday, March 9th, the Writer-Director (aided in crafting the screenplay by A.J. Bermudez and Cherish Chen) Kyle Hausmann-Stokes told us of how his superior when he was serving in Afghanistan, where he served for 5 years and earned a Bronze Star, noticed his skill in shooting film of the veteran experience. That Army superior, recognizing talent,  aided Hausmann-Stokes in allowing him to train at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Since then, this native of Madison, Wisconsin has made films for a variety of veteran-related companies including the U.S. Air Force, UPS, the U.S. Department of Veterans, Google, and IBM.

Now, Hausmann-Stokes has crafted a semi-fictionalized story about two real-life Army buddies of his, Ramirez and Ventura, who made it back home but took their own lives, something that happens with alarming frequency. The use of actual veterans was similar to the use of real-life refugees from World War II in Europe in the film “Casablanca”, which helped give “Casablanca” its sense of authenticity, They are all totally believable.


Sonequia Martin-Green
Sonequa Martin-Green (Merit) of “My Dead Friend Zoe” at the World Premiere on March 9, 2024 at SXSW.

MY DEAD FRIEND ZOE, says the synopsis, is a dark comedy-drama that follows the journey of Merit (Sonequa Martin-Green), a U.S. Army Afghanistan veteran who is at odds with her family thanks to the presence of Zoe (Natalie Morales, “Dead to Me”), her dead best friend from the Army. Despite the persistence of her VA group counselor, Dr. Cole (Morgan Freeman), the tough love of her mother Kris (Gloria Reuben) and an unexpected love interest in Alex (Utkarsh Ambud Kar), Merit’s cozy-dysfunctional friendship with Zoe keeps the duo insulated from the world. That remains the status quo until Merit’s estranged grandfather Dale Tillman (Ed Harris)—who lives at the family’s ancestral lake house—begins to lose his way mentally and is in need of the one thing he refuses… help.”

The film is about a complicated friendship between Merritt (Sonequa Martin-Green) and Zoe (Natalie Morales). We know from the title that Zoe is dead, but she is very much alive in Merit’s daily life, as Merit obsesses about her. That particular plot point of Zoe’s death is carefully concealed until quite late in the film, but the scenes of Zoe’s intrusion into Merit’s daily life are both serious and comic. One line from the screenplay sums it up this way: “When you lose someone, you don’t know who you are without them.”


Natalie Morales
 Natalie Morales of “My Dead Friend Zoe” on the Red Carpet at SXSW, March 9, 2024. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

When Merit learns that Grandpa Dale Tillman (Ed Harris) has been diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer’s and may not be able to continue living alone at the lake house near Portland he loves Merit returns for a visit. The ghost of Zoe says, to Merit, in a sarcastic aside, “You didn’t tell me your Grandpa lived on the set of a horror movie.” Zoe will make other such snide remarks throughout Merit’s days.  Mom Kris (Gloria Reuben) wants to put Dale into Shady Acres, an assisted living facility.

Dale spent 2 tours in Vietnam and left the service as a 22-year Lieutenant Colonel. It was her Grandfather Dale’s example that initially inspired Merit to join the Army. As the script tells us of our military, “You go out and do things that nobody else wants to do.” The sacrifice that our military men and women make to keep us safe and free is not always appreciated, as Lt. Col. Dale Tillman found out when he returned home from Vietnam.


Utkarsh Ambud Kar
Utkarsh Ambud Kar (Alex) of “My Dead Friend Zoe” on the Red Carpet for the World Premiere on March 9, 2024 at SXSW. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

In addition to the universal problem of what to do about aging parents who are no longer capable of living alone, the film takes on the mother/daughter dynamic. Gloria Reuben’s largely unsympathetic character seems intent on sticking her father, Dale, in Shady Acres. When Merit takes Dale to the annual Fourth of July concert in the park and (temporarily) loses him, strife ensues.

At the park, Dale and Merit accidentally encounter Alex (Utkarsh Ambud Kar), the son of the first Indian family in Portland who owns and operates Shady Acres.  Alex is romantically interested in Merit. Grandpa Dale does not react well to accidentally finding out that others have been deciding that he should leave the home he and his late wife established many years ago.  Dale temporarily goes missing, and Kris, Merit’s Mom, admonishes Merit on the phone, saying, “I love you, Merit, but you’ve made a mess.”


Gloria Reuben
Gloria Reuben of “My Dead Friend Zoe” at SXSW on March 9, 2024.

Morgan Freeman adds his usual sense of gravitas as Dr. Cole, the leader of a PTSD therapy group that Merit is supposed to faithfully attend to avoid jail time for a minor altercation that may have happened due to her continuing stressful state of mind. Any time you’ve got Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris, you can count on good performances from true professionals. Neither made the Premiere at SXSW, but their work onscreen is up to par. In addition, the leads all turned into believable performances with nicely nuanced humor, primarily from Natalie Morales.

The camera work shooting the beautiful area around the lake is well done; the park scene cinematography was particularly good (Matt Sakatani Roe). The music is handled well with an original song by Kaia Kater and Dan Romer and Music Supervision by Laura Katz. The use of Rihanna’s song “Umbrella” in an early portion of the film is particularly well-chosen when the two friends sing snatches of such lyrics as: “These fancy things will never come in between,
You’re part of my entity, here for infinity, When the war has taken its part, When the world has dealt its cards, If the hand is hard, Together we’ll mend your heart, Because.”

“My Dead Friend Zoe” is a great feature film debut at SXSW from Director Kyle Hausmann-Stokes.

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About Connie Wilson

Connie (Corcoran) Wilson (www.ConnieCWilson.com ) was the Quad City Times film and book critic for 15 years and has continued reviewing film uninterruptedly since 1970. She also publishes books in a variety of genres (www.quadcitieslearning.com), has taught writing or literature classes at 6 Iowa/Illinois colleges or universities as adjunct faculty, was Yahoo's Content Producer of the Year 2008 for Politics, is the author of It Came from the 70s: From The Godfather to Apocalypse Now, and writes on a variety of topics at her own blog, www.WeeklyWilson.com. Weekly Wilson is also the name of her podcast on the Bold Brave Media Global Network on Thursday nights at 7 p.m. (CDT).