Assuming you've been following the news since 1998, I doubt there are many who aren't familiar with Matthew Shepard, the young gay man who was robbed and savagely beaten by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson just outside his hometown of Laramie, Wyoming, only to die from his injuries less than a week later. An immensely popular and hot-button national news story within days of its occurrence, it led to sweeping changes in national and state-level hate crime legislation and, more recently, a prevention act signed into law during President Obama's first term. Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine (2014), directed by Michele Josue, examines the life and legacy of her friend from a purely personal standpoint. It's a diplomatic, well-constructed, and extremely thoughtful production, more concerned with preserving memories and processing his absence than pushing any sort of agenda.
Not surprisingly, Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine features no shortage of home movies, photos, and personal testimonies. Front and center are his parents Judy and Dennis, as well as Walt Boulden (Matt's high school guidance counselor and mentor), several friends from different stages and locations in his life, local authorities, and even a few folks who saw him on the night of the crime. It's a well-rounded but abridged account of Shepard's brief and complex life, which also mentions at least one other horrific event (his rape at age 15 during a high school trip to Morocco) but leaves out some of the darker bits during the next several years in his life. The only notable absence is Matt's younger brother Logan; it's at least mentioned in the closing credits that Logan continues to work for the Matthew Shepard Foundation, just one of the many positive things to arise from the horrifying crime.
The only lingering, unanswered question remaining in Shepard's murder is the motive; was this young man initially targeted and/or beaten to death solely because of his sexual preference? The jury's still out on that one, although Jouse's film---like the majority of media outlets, rights groups, and public opinion---certainly thinks so. Luckily, this isn't the driving force behind Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine; rather than split hairs over social agendas and details of the investigation, it chooses to celebrate his life and process what's happened in the years since it was snuffed out. The film's third act also manages to stay grounded despite veering a bit off course: right after the 60-minute mark, it takes a spiritual turn by going after low-hanging fruit like the Westboro Baptist Church before Jouse speaks with Father Roger Schmit, who counseled McKinney in prison before he almost received the death penalty. Short of a conversation with McKinney himself, it's the film's closest attempt at reaching direct emotional closure.
As a whole, Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine is a fine effort, especially considering this is Jouse's feature film debut. It's at least worth a rental for interested parties and documentary fans...and I'd give it a higher recommendation, had Virgil Films' DVD package been a little stronger. The good-but-not-great A/V presentation can easily be traced back to the film's limited source material, but it's barely a half-step above DVR quality in all other departments.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in an anamorphic 1.78:1 aspect ratio, Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine looks pretty good on DVD...for the most part, at least. Recent interviews are well shot with good image detail and no flagrant errors. Still photos are clean and crisp with good color reproduction, although much of the 1998-era footage looks to have come from less pristine sources and exhibits digital combing, compression artifacts, and other eyesores (which may not have been avoidable, to be fair). The only objective flaw here is due to the framing: home movies, pre-HD clips, and more---almost all of which were originally shot in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio---have been cropped to fill the widescreen frame, and this only amplifies their flaws. I have no idea why most modern documentaries are so dead-set on maintaining a widescreen aspect ratio at any cost, but this is one case where it works against the film's effectiveness. Still, neither of these issues are the DVD's problem...so take that slightly docked video rating with a grain of salt.
DISCLAIMER: These compressed and resized screen captures are purely decorative and do not represent the DVD under review.
The only audio option is Dolby 2.0 Stereo, which has little trouble within the boundaries of independent film. Dialogue is relatively clear...which is good, because no optional subtitles or captions are included during the main feature. The music is mixed well and, along with a few moments of subtle ambient noise, manages to create a decent amount of weight during this front-loaded presentation. Rear channels may have added more, but I'm not disappointed.
Menus, Presentation, & Packaging
Not much effort here at all...there's not even a menu interface, only 10-minute chapter breaks (on the bright side, it loads quickly with no trailers). This one-disc release is housed in a standard black keepcase with no slipcover or inserts. Obviously, this means no extras either, which is a shame for any standard definition disc priced at $20.
Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine is hard to watch at times but isn't an especially challenging experience: it often has the effect of a warm, comforting blanket over the shoulders of everyone who's been directly---or indirectly---affected by his brutal slaying in 1998. It's not so much a focused overview of Shepard's life as a way of processing his absence since then...and makes no apologies for placing director and close friend Michele Josue front and center, as evidenced by the title. This makes the film both fiercely intimate and slightly distancing, but the finished product is obviously well-crafted and heartfelt enough to soften almost any personal nitpicks. Sadly, Virgil Films' DVD package doesn't do very much with this one: the A/V presentation is decent enough, but a complete lack of bonus features (or even a menu) makes this feel more like a burn-on-demand rush job than a serious effort. It's worth a look for interested parties, but the low replay value doesn't necessarily make this worth owning. Rent It.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.