“My Dead Friend Zoe” Is a Different Veteran Film

My Dead Friend Zoe

You don’t have to be among the few who caught the film My Dead Friend Zoe at SXSW to know that Zoe is dead – it’s right there in the title. But what you should know, whether you’ve seen Zoe or not, is that the film has many friends – including executive producer Travis Kelce, writer/director Kyle Hausmann-Stokes’ friends in the armed services, and Legion M’s community of fan investors.

My Dead Friend Zoe stars Sonequa Martin-Green as Merit and Natalie Morales as Zoe. The film follows Merit as she adjusts to life back home after serving in Afghanistan. While reacclimating for any veteran is tough, Merit’s path is made much more difficult by the presence of the aforementioned very dead BFF Zoe. Merit is supported in the film by veteran grief counselor Dr. Cole (Morgan Freeman), grandfather Dale (Ed Harris), her mother Kris (Gloria Reuben), and love interest Alex (Utkarsh Ambudkar).

The cinematic colonel of this project is writer/director Kyle Hausmann-Stokes. A veteran of the Army, he served five years as a US Army paratrooper in Iraq, earned a Bronze Star, was discharged, and then recalled again before finally finishing USC film school.

Focusing mostly on themes from his and his peers’ experiences, Hausmann-Stokes co-founded Veterans in Media and Entertainment and in the height of the pandemic, wrote his most personal project to date, a short film titled Merit X Zoe. It eventually grew in the SXSW feature My Dead Friend Zoe.

"My Dead Friend Zoe" writer/director Kyle Hausmann-Stokes in Iraq 2007 - Photo by Yo Han Ko
“My Dead Friend Zoe” writer/director Kyle Hausmann-Stokes in Iraq 2007 – Photo by Yo Han Ko

The project, based on his personal time in service, needed to be as intimate as possible but with some very deliberate distance for the director. He did that by changing the identity of his two leads.

“I mean, I’ve never seen a white man decide that his story was best told through two women of color,” said Natalie Morales. The Cuban actress/producer/director who plays Zoe in Zoe spoke to us just before the film’s premiere at SXSW. “I think it’s not like any other movie I’ve seen,” she continues. “Not only because it’s women veterans, which we don’t see often, women in service.”

Sonequa Martin-Green (Merit) agreed with Morales at the film’s Austin premiere, “Yes, this is his story. This is his life, his experience. And, so I think that it was quite courageous for him to have a Black woman tell his story, to have a Cuban woman, tell part of his story.”

The character of Zoe is in honor of two of Hausmann-Stokes’ battlemates: SSG “Grizzly” Luis Ramirez-Jimenez and SPC “Chile Verde” Boris Ventura.

By his own admission, the Zoe director consciously chose to focus the story on women because, “the rare times we do see female soldiers or veterans on screen, their characters tend to be defined by their gender or a sexual assault,” Hausmann-Stoke says, ”While these are of course a reality for so many women who have served, I’ve heard from so many women veterans that they’d like to be portrayed in other ways as well.  For this reason, I crafted Zoe such that Merit and Zoe are not ‘women veterans’ but just ‘veterans.’ The story of the film isn’t about their gender, it’s about their friendship.”

Behind the scenes of "My Dead Friend Zoe."  Writer/director Kyle Hausmann-Stokes with star Natalie Morales. Photo by Michael Moriatis
Behind the scenes of My Dead Friend Zoe. Writer/director Kyle Hausmann-Stokes with star Natalie Morales. Photo by Michael Moriatis

“It is a universal story,” said Morales. ”I think anybody can relate to this, whether you served in the armed forces or not, it’s not really about veterans. It’s much more about humans and human beings.”

“It’s so relatable because it can speak to anyone,” said Marin-Green. “It definitely is for veterans. But it’s also for anyone who’s struggling with grief and loss and sacrifice and tragedy and having mental health struggles.”

My Dead Friend Zoe not only has a phenomenal story, it is a phenomenal story. On its own, the film is absolutely one of the best of the fest. And while it may only be March, I can safely say this one will be among my favorites of the year. The story, the emotion, the performances are superior. Yes, it will make you laugh thanks in huge part to Morales and her acting. The chemistry on screen between Morales and Martin-Green is effortless and engaging.

When you get a chance to see it, I would strongly encourage preparing with Costco run for bulk-sized Kleenex. I would also encourage you to learn more about the organizations that the film highlights at the end: The Bob Woodruff Foundation, Everytown for Gun Safety, and The Mission Continues.

And I’m not alone in my love for the film. My Dead Friend Zoe was a runaway festival favorite and took home the Narrative Spotlight Audience Award. When something is worth talking about, I don’t whisper it amongst my community, I shout it – loudly. So, consider this my call of support for My Dead Friend Zoe from the top of the Hollywood Hills.

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