[EDITOR'S NOTE: The recent DVD release of this entertaining and educational documentary makes this holiday season a particularly apt time to repost the following review of the February 2015 theatrical release of the film. The story of involuntary martyr Matthew Shepard is a true Christmas fable. This nice young man inarguably did nada to deserve his brutal fatal beating, and the incident prompted an almost literal world of good.]
"Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine," which begins the jump from film festivals to mainstream theaters with a February 6 2015 opening at the New York AMC Empire Theater and a February 13 2105 opening at the Laemmle Noho Theater in Los Angeles, nicely achieves the dual documentary objectives of being educational and informative. The well-executed premise of this Run Rabit Run Media production is that filmmaker Michelle Josue offers an intimate portrait in the best sense of that term of a close friend, who is well known as the innocent victim of an especially brutal hate crime.
Josue stating at the beginning of the film that she wants to share how her friend Matt Shepard becomes Matthew Shepard for whom most of us weep appropriately sets the tone for the movie. A spoiler is that Josue nicely achieves this objective to the extent that she makes this reviewer mourn not having the opportunity to spend an afternoon drinking coffee with Matt (rather than Matthew) and having a wonderfully quirky conversation.
"Shepard," which has won numerous festival awards, is a true labor of love in which Josue gives us a look at the 20-something guy who is a textbook victim of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. For the benefit of folks who do not know this story, Shepard was a sweet young gay guy who approached two not-so-sweet (or so gay) young guys at a Wyoming bar one night and ended up brutally beaten and left to die while tied to a fence for the offense of trying to befriend them.
Josue does her job well in not making any bias regarding her subject apparent; she merely documents the life of this all-American kid through sharing her own memories of this high school friend, home movies of our subject, and interviews with his parents and friends.
We also see still photos of Shepard and hear Josue read writings of his that include a wonderfully goofy list of his favorite things. One spoiler is that said inventory does not include raindrops on roses, whiskers on kittens, or brown paper packages tied up with string. A related spoiler is that we learn of periods of disabling sadness in the life of Shepard.
Josue shares the characteristically quirky way that Shepard introduces himself to her while they are at a Swiss boarding school for American students. Anyone familiar with a prep. school knows that living with your peers often creates life-long bonds; the element of being several thousand miles from your native country can only enhance that connection.
Highlights of the film include learning of Shepard having a particularly treasured stuffed animal, watching a home video in which a roughly 13 year-old Shepard playfully expresses annoyance at his younger brother filming him, and hearing the father of Shepard discuss his surprisingly loving response to Shepard coming out. It is incredibly sad that the elder Shepard will never get a chance to be an awesome father-in-law to the sweet and kind man whom Matt seems destined to have married if not prevented from reaching that stage in his life.
Josue further redirects public attention to a prior brutal attack on Shepard that is eerily similar to the fatal one and that arguably leads to circumstances that contribute to his death.
At the risk of this review becoming bloggy, a personal experience a few years before the attack on Shepard further shows how easily this type of thing can occur.
A group of us who were in the Dallas area for a business conference were walking back from a Rangers game when a very straight and ultra-conservative colleague completely innocently put his arm across my shoulder. Not knowing the rules, I returned the gesture without comment from anyone in our group. Apparently one guy making this gesture is a show of friendship but returning it is gay.
A few minutes later, a couple of guys driving past in a pick-up yelled "FAGS!" This prompted me to instinctively respond "it takes one to know one." ("I know that you are, but what am I?" would have been equally apt.)
The driver then immediately slammed on his brakes and put the truck in reverse. We ran across a field and fortunately were not pursued.
It is worth noting as well that the story of Shepard is comparable to that of civil rights icon Rosa Parks; it is well known that a compelling desire to sit (rather than any intent to buck the system) is the only reason for the famous act of Parks. Similarly, a desire to be social seems to be the only reason for the incident that makes Shepard an international figure. Another common characteristic is that both individuals are someone who would likely give up their seat on a bus to someone who needs it.