By Daniel Barnes
*Opens today at the AMC Metreon in San Francisco, the Rialto Elmwood in Berkeley, and the Rialto Sonoma County in Sebastopol.
There have been numerous attempts to adapt, translate, and contextualize the death of gay University of Wyoming student Matt Shepard ever since his horrifying murder galvanized the nation in 1998. Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine, written and directed by Shepard’s childhood friend Michelle Josue, is an open and honest attempt to understand his life, to show “our Matt” to a world that picked him up as a symbol first and a person last.
With the consent and assistance of his heroic and still-grieving parents, Josue tracks Shepard’s upbringing from Casper, Wyoming to Saudi Arabia to a Swiss boarding school (where he befriended Josue), and to his life-shattering sexual assault while on a weekend trip to Morocco that sent him back to the “safety” of Wyoming. By allowing Shepard to become flesh and blood, it only makes his hate crime murder seem that much more personal (Shepard was so small in stature, the crime scene deputies thought he was a 12-year-old boy), the outpouring of hate at his funeral that much more infuriating, and the “generation of advocates” that became his legacy that much more inspiring.
There are amateur touches here and there, like when Josue shoots herself staring off blankly at the prison that holds Shepard’s murderers, but overall the filmmaking is very accomplished. Be prepared for a powerhouse emotional experience – I cried throughout the film, I cried thinking about it later, I cried going over my notes, I’m crying right now, and I’ll probably cry while copy editing my review, loading images and setting the publish time.