Fresh off of her acclaimed turn as Max Mayfield in Stranger Things Season 4, and a buzz-worthy role opposite Brendan Fraser in Darren Aronofsky’s Oscar-hopeful The Whale, Sadie Sink is becoming one of the most highly sought-after actresses working in Hollywood. She’s more than deserving, as the latest installment of Stranger Things greatly expanded her role as Max, and her big scene set to Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)” was one of the most widely discussed scenes of the year. Her co-stars have sung high praises for her, Winona Ryder even called her “the next Meryl Streep.” Enter Dear Zoe, an independent production based on Philip Beard’s YA novel of the same name, which was filmed back in October 2019. Having seen the movie, one has to think, maybe this should have just stayed on the shelf.
Dear Zoe follows Tess DeNunzio (Sink), a teenage girl living with her mother and stepdad (Jessica Capshaw and Justin Bartha) in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her relationship with her family has become incredibly strained since the death of her baby half-sister Zoe in a hit-and-run accident on 9/11. Fed up with the cards that life has dealt her, Tess decides to pack up her things and move in with her biological father Nick (Theo Rossi), a gruff but kind-hearted man. During her stay, she falls for Nick’s next-door neighbor Jimmy Freeze (Kweku Collins), an aspiring musician, who she begins opening up to.
Dear Zoe was clearly made with a very low budget, and even with some recognizable names involved in the film, it would be hard to fault the film for looking the way that it does. But in an era where we’ve seen movies with minuscule budgets look stunning on screen, this film has the overly bright aesthetic of a Lifetime Original Movie and all the melodrama of one too. The story itself rings emotionally hollow, with no sense of direction. It’s a collection of quirks, from the inclusion of 9/11 that just feels ill-advised, cute puppies, backstabbing friends, and montages of dates at an amusement park set to peppy pop music, Dear Zoe has all of that. Every single plot beat seems to be taken from better (or slightly better) material, which is shocking as its source material—published in 2005—was met with a great deal of acclaim and high praise. From the looks of it, the book this story in a much more nuanced way, compared to this film, which feels like it’s trying to be something out of a John Green novel, but told in the vein of a Dollar Tree knock-off. Even with a short runtime of only 95 minutes, Dear Zoe’s lack of consistency makes the pacing unfathomably slow.
It’s clear that filmmaker Gren Wells and writers Marc Lhormer and Melissa Martin were making Dear Zoe with the very best of intentions. Even if the emotional beats miss the mark, it is easy to tell that they wanted to tell a genuine and honest portrait of grief and how we deal with losing the ones close to us, but it just doesn’t work. The film can’t decide whether it wants to be a story of our grief, reconnecting with loved ones, forgiveness, or a simple Young Adult romance. Obviously, there are ways that one could balance out these topics in a way that isn’t so jumbled, but that isn’t the case with Dear Zoe. As the movie moves through its different sub-plots, you soon start to forget how it even got to certain plot points, making it feel jarring.
While Dear Zoe doesn’t work as a whole, Sadie Sink, as some may have expected, rises above what she was given in the script, and gives a fantastic performance as Tess. Like her previous roles, she has such a natural screen presence, and it’s very easy to feel empathy for her character. Her chemistry with her co-stars is hit-and-miss, but the scenes she shares with Theo Rossi and Jessica Capshaw are the ones that have any sense of authenticity. Speaking of, Rossi also turns some decent acting as Nick, while his casting as the father of Sink is a bit strange, he brings a lot of warmth and heart to the role and carries a mountain of charisma that seems almost effortless.
If there is any reason to give Dear Zoe a chance, it’s because of these two central performances that save the movie from being unwatchable. Justin Bartha, who has proven himself to be a very talented actor, is given very little to do in the film, outside the cliché emotionally distant step-father role (you know the one). The one time that the emotions do actually, kind of, hit in Dear Zoe is in a scene near the end of the film between Capshaw and Sink. Not only does it remind the audience how we got to where we were in the story in the first place, but it is one of the few times that you can actually feel anything towards the film as a whole.
Dear Zoe has its heart in the right place, but its reliance on creating one too many schmaltzy moments for the characters, and trying to be too many things at once, hold it back from being anything noteworthy. This clearly isn’t some career-ending film for those involved, far from it, as the previous work from this creative team has proven their talent, but this isn’t something that will work for much of the audience either.