“We see a lot of war movies. We don’t really see a lot of movies about veterans,” said first time writer/director and Army veteran Kyle Hausmann Stokes in the Q and A following the world premiere SXSW screening of his film, My Dead Friend Zoe. We not only need more films like this, we need more filmmakers like Haussmann Stokes, who channels tragedy and trauma into healing and transformation in a compassionate narrative that is as empathetic a portrayal of military service and PTSD as I have seen in a long time…and maybe ever. 

Based on his own experiences in the military and as a veteran, My Dead Friend Zoe is a dramedy that follows Merit (Sonequa Martin-Green), a U.S. Army Afghanistan veteran suffering from PTSD due to, well, as the title states, the death of her friend Zoe (Natalie Morales), also an Army vet. Despite the persistence of her VA group counselor (Morgan Freeman), Merit has difficulty opening up to others about what she is going through. Her life becomes even more complicated when her mother calls to tell her that her grandfather is beginning to show signs of early onset alzheimer’s disease. An unexpected love interest (Utkarsh Ambudkar) could be a way forward for Merit…if her dead friend Zoe would only get out of the way.

My Dead Friend Zoe is bold enough to both laugh in the face of tragedy and hold out hope that recovery and healing are possible, if we are willing to tell our stories and lucky enough to have someone to listen to us. It’s as poignant a vision of how grief, born out of love and longing for a departed friend or family member, can actually turn on us, becoming our worst enemy and locking us in emotional, mental, and physical stasis. And because veterans don’t have the market cornered on PTSD, the film speaks to all viewers that have suffered loss and/or trauma, especially those that find it difficult to let go of feelings of guilt or responsibility for that loss. It walks perhaps the finest line a filmmaker can walk in America today, honoring those who serve and have sacrificed the utmost while making space for questions about or criticism of the role of America’s military in the world today. In the divisive times in which we live, this film is a reminder of the beauty of the idea of America, that the country belongs to and is made up of a multiplicity of identities and voices, and that investment in that dream isn’t limited to military service but includes those like Alex (Ambudkar) and his family, who “double down” on that idea and invest in and serve their communities here at home too. 

My Dead Friend Zoe had its world premiere screening at SXSW and is awaiting distribution. Stay tuned for updates.