Cast of "My Dead Friend Zoe"

“My Dead Friend Zoe” Premieres at SXSW on March 9, 2024.

“My Dead Friend Zoe” was a crowd-funded first feature film from Army veteran Kyle Hausmann-Stokes, who served 5 years in Afghanistan and used his real-life experiences to craft this film that premiered at SXSW on March 9, 2024. He is co-founder of the nonprofit organization Veterans in Media & Entertainment.  It is a plus that he has cast nearly all parts in “My Dead Friend Zoe” with actual veterans. This is Travis Kelce’s first film as a producer.


Klye Hausmann-Stokes, Director of "My Dead Friend Zoe"

Director Kyle Hausmann-Stokes on the Red Carpet at SXSW on March 9, 2024 at SXSW. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

Following its World Premiere at SXSW on Saturday, March 9th, the Writer-Director (aided in crafting the screenplay by A.J. Bermudez and Cherish Chen) told us of how his superior when he was serving in Afghanistan, (where he served for 5 years and earned a Bronze Star), noticed his skill in shooting film of the veteran experience. That Army superior, recognizing talent,  aided Hausmann-Stokes in allowing him to train  at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Since then, this Madison, Wisconsin native has made films for a variety of veteran-related companies including the U.S. Air Force, UPS, the U.S. Department of Veterans, Google and IBM.

Now, Hausmann-Stokes has crafted a semi-fictionalized story about two real-life Army buddies of his, Ramirez and Ventura, who made it back home, but took their own lives, something that happens with alarming frequency. The use of actual veterans was similar to the use of real-life refugees from World War II in Europe during the filming of “Casablanca”, which helped give “Casablanca” its sense of authenticity. The performances from the cast are all totally believable.


Natalie Morales in "My Dead Friend Zoe"

Natalie Morales on the Red Carpet at SXSW for her starring role in “My Dead Friend Zoe.” (Photo by Connie Wilson).

MY DEAD FRIEND ZOE, says the synopsis, is a dark comedy drama that follows the journey of Merit (Sonequa Martin-Green), a U.S. Army Afghanistan veteran who is at odds with her family thanks to the presence of Zoe (Natalie Morales, “Dead to Me”), her dead best friend from the Army. Despite the persistence of her VA group counselor, Dr. Cole (Morgan Freeman), the tough love of her mother Kris (Gloria Reuben) and an unexpected love interest in Alex (Utkarsh Ambud Kar), Merit’s cozy-dysfunctional friendship with Zoe keeps the duo insulated from the world. That remains the status quo until Merit’s estranged grandfather Dale Tillman (Ed Harris)—who lives at the family’s ancestral lake house—begins to lose his way mentally and is need of the one thing he refuses… help.”

The film is about a complicated friendship between Merritt (Sonequa Martin-Green) and Zoe (Natalie Morales). We know from the title that Zoe is dead, but she is very much alive in Merit’s daily life, as Merit obsesses about her. That particular plot point of Zoe’s death is carefully concealed until quite late in the film, but the scenes of Zoe’s intrusion into Merit’s daily life are both serious and comic. One line from the screenplay sums it up this way: “When you lose someone, you don’t know who you are without them.”


Sonequa Martin-Green on the Red Carpet at SXSW for "My Dead Friend Zoe"

Sonequa Martin-Green (Merit) on the Red Carpet for “My Dead Friend Zoe” on March 9th, 2024, at SXSW.

When Merit learns that Grandpa Dale Tillman (Ed Harris) has been diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer’s and may not be able to continue living alone at the lake house near Portland he loves, Merit returns for a visit. The ghost of Zoe says, to Merit, in a sarcastic aside, “You didn’t tell me your Grandpa lived on the set of a horror movie.” Zoe will make other such snide remarks throughout Merit’s days.  Mom Kris (Gloria Reuben) wants to put Dale into Shady Acres, an assisted living facility.

Dale spent 2 tours in Vietnam and left the service as a 22-year Lieutenant Colonel. It was her Grandfather Dale’s example that initially inspired Merit to join the Army. As the script tells us of our military, “You go out and do things that nobody else wants to do.” The sacrifice that our military men and women make to keep us safe and free is not always appreciated, as Lt. Col. Dale Tillman found out when he returned home from Vietnam.


Gloria Reuben

Utkarsh Ambud Kar, who played Alex in “My Dead Friend Zoe” at the World Premiere on March 9, 2024.

Reuben’s largely unsympathetic character seems intent on sticking her father, Dale, in Shady Acres.  (Above, Gloria Reuben arriving at the Red Carpet for “My Dead Friend Zoe” at SXSW on March 9th in Austin, Texas.) When Merit takes Dale to the annual Fourth of July concert in the park and (temporarily) loses him, strife ensues. Kris (Gloria Reuben) says to her daughter, Merit, “I love you, Merit, but you’ve made a mess”

At the park, Dale and Merit accidentally encounter Alex (Utkarsh Ambud Kar), the son of the first Indian family in Portland who own and operate Shady Acres.  Alex is romantically interested in Merit. Grandpa Dale does not react well to accidentally finding out that others have been deciding that he should leave the home he and his late wife established many years ago.  Dale temporarily goes missing, and Kris, Merit’s Mom, admonishes Merit on the phone, saying, “I love you, Merit, but you’ve made a mess.”


Morgan Freeman adds his usual sense of gravitas as Dr. Cole, the leader of a PTSD therapy group that Merit is supposed to faithfully attend in order to avoid jail-time for a minor altercation that may have happened due to her PTSD. Any time you’ve got Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris, you can count on good performances from true professionals. Neither made the Premiere at SXSW, but their work onscreen is up to par. In addition, the leads all turned in believable performances with nicely nuanced humor, primarily from Natalie Morales.

The camera work shooting the beautiful area around the lake is well-done; the park scene cinematography was particularly good (Matt Sakatani Roe). The music is handled well with an original song by Kaia Kater and Dan Romer and Music Supervision by Laura Katz. The use of Rihanna’s song “Umbrella” in an early portion of the film is particularly well-chosen, when the two friends sing snatches of  the song’s lyrics such as “These fancy things will never come in between,
You’re part of my entity, here for infinity, When the war has took its part, When the world has dealt its cards, If the hand is hard, Together we’ll mend your heart, Because.”

“My Dead Friend Zoe” is a great feature film debut at SXSW from Director Kyle Hausmann-Stokes.