Tuesday, February 17, 2015

"Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine"

 5 / 5 

Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine isn't the movie you might imagine, the one you might resist or even fear.

Yes, it delves into the specifics of the horrifying beating death of the 21-year-old Wyoming college student, whose murder galvanized the nation and sped along much of the progress the gay-rights movement has seen in the past decade and a half.  But that’s only a part of it.  Up front, its director makes it clear that she wants to ensure that Shepard is remembered not simply for his name but for the life he led that was brutally cut short.  It turns out that this is more than just a noble cause, because for a 21-year-old kid from Wyoming, Shepard lived an unexpectedly rich and fascinating life. 

Has it really been 17 years since Matthew Shepard was brutally attacked and left to die while tied to a fence in the middle of the lonely Wyoming prairie.  Josue makes the time melt away, both poignantly and painfully. For her, his death still feels impossibly near.  For any filmmaker, Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine would be an impressive work; for a first-time director, it’s a remarkable accomplishment.

From interviews with his friends and family that are presented in mostly chronological order, Josue begins with what seem to be mundane and wholesome pieces that are woven together to create an increasingly fascinating tapestry of a boy who was bright, ambitious, self-aware and promising -- until an unexpected turn of events that, ultimately, directly lead to the night in Laramie, Wyo., when Shepard’s path crosses with two men he mistakes as friends.

Even those who are familiar with the details of Shepard’s death may be surprised to learn what happened years before, and how one awful night far from home began a string of events that inexorably led to his death.  Considering that the movie begins as a rather standard talking-head documentary, Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine settles in to a story as compelling as any fictional film.

Until the last few minutes, when it feels just a tad too much like an infomercial for the foundation created in Shepard’s name, Josue avoids the temptation to make this into a movie about hate crimes, about the coming-out process or about gay rights.  It’s a specific story about a specific person, and all the better for that narrow focus.

Though documentarians often fail when they bring too much of themselves to their movies, Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine manages the opposite feat – its emotionally raw high point comes when Josue spends time with a priest who knew Shepard and who talks about the emptiness and tragedy that Shepard’s murder left behind.

The priest led Shepard's funeral.  Later, he tried to console Shepard's killers.  Josue asks him why he would do that.  The priest explains why, offering an extraordinary, heart-stopping exploration of suffering, loss and acceptance. It’s a riveting, harrowing scene.

It's one reason, but far from the only, that  Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine is the furthest thing possible from the tedious movie I expected (and, yes, feared) it to be.  Though it's only February, I find it hard to conceive that the year ahead will yield a more heartbreaking, of a more fulfilling, movie -- documentary or otherwise.

Viewed Feb. 15, 2015 -- Laemmle North Hollywood


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