It's weird really.
While it can seem like Hollywood is filled to the brim with stories of instant success, the truth is that most performers cut their cinematic teeth in the often unseen region of the indie world where they make short films and indie films and no-budget films. They play bit parts in bit movies or bigger parts in movies few people will ever see. Sometimes, they work for gas money or barely enough money to pay the rent.
There are those performers and writers and filmmakers who spend their entire lives in the indie world and, yes, it's more than possible to make an entire career in the indie and arthouse world.
The people that we like to proclaim an instant success seldom are instant successes. Oh sure, on occasion instant success really happens. In most cases, however, it's years of working under the radar before the right film or the right television appearance or the right collaboration happens.
Then, something resembling success arrives.
Before Sadie Sink became a household name on Stranger Things and in 2022's acclaimed The Whale, Sink journeyed her way through bit parts in television and film before this film, Dear Zoe, offered a shot at her first truly leading role. Shot in Pittsburgh in 2019, this Gren Wells directed film was released to coincide with Children's Grief Awareness Month and tells a story centered around Tess DeNunzio (Sink), whose family has experienced a significant loss for which Tess blames herself. While her mother and step-father, played by Jessica Capshaw and Justin Bartha, struggle with their own grief, Tess's grief becomes increasingly complicated and she heads to the most unlikely of places looking for room to breathe - the home of her biological father (Theo Rossi), a lovable slacker from the wrong side of the tracks - where she begins to find room to process her own grief and heal despite the wildly dysfunctional environment and perhaps slightly because of the dangerous juvenile delinquent who lives next door (Kweku Collins).
Based on a novel of the same name by Philip Beard, Dear Zoe is an emotionally histrionic and tonally uneven film that hits all the familiar touchpoints from Beard's YA novel with a script co-written by Marc Lhormer and Melissa Martin that mostly just flirts with the emotional core that turned Beard's novel into one of the ten best first novels of 2005 according to the American Library Association's Booklist.
Where Lhormer and Martin do succeed, however, is in vividly painting a portrait of the often inexpressible grief of a child or teen and how that impacts the world that surrounds them. Dear Zoe understands that children will turn toward the places they deem safe, physically or emotionally, and that safety means different things for different people. Planting herself in a new world, Tess finds hope with a father who is ill-equipped for parenting but, refreshingly, is also recognized as truly loving his daughter anyway. Similarly, it may seem like there's a constant sense of menace present as Tess finds herself with Kweku Collins' Jimmy but there's never any doubt that there's healing to be found here.
If you're a fan of Sadie Sink, then you'll likely be a fan of Sink's turn as Tess. While Sink was twenty-years-old when playing this 16-year-old, she's no Ben Platt and easily convinces us that she's a teenager on the cusp of young adulthood suddenly thrust into the very adult world of complicated and unfathomable grief. Sink doesn't so much transform as she immerses herself into Tess's world and serves up a performance that is emotionally riveting and absolutely heartbreaking.
While there's no denying that Sink is at the forefront, Dear Zoe is gifted with a terrific ensemble with particularly strong turns by both Theo Rossi and Kweku Collins worth of note.
Lensing by Joel Schwartz feels appropriate for this YA-based cinematic effort and Michael Yezerski's original score nicely companions the film's tonal peaks and valleys with a sort of rhythmic empathy.
As directed by Gren Wells, Dear Zoe is the kind of film that too often goes unseen with difficult to market themes and a coming-of-age story that tackles some of the darker corners of what it means to grow into adulthood. While not a perfect film (what film is?), Dear Zoe will resonate with fans of Beard's novel, Sadie Sink fans, and likely with a good number of teens and young adults who will identify with its real-life themes and storytelling.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic