Dear Jesse

Movie Information

Genre: Autobiographical Documentary
Director: Tim Kirkman
Starring: Tim Kirkman, Jesse Helms, Ann Pierce, Lee Smith, Allan Gurganus
Rated: NR

Filmmaker Tim Kirkman’s first film, the autobiographical Dear Jesse, is both very different from Loggerheads and yet not all that much so. Both films deal with being gay and reactions to gay people. Both deal with issues of family. Both are essentially and inescapably products of North Carolina.

Of course, Dear Jesse is a documentary, while Loggerheads is a fact-based narrative film. Dear Jesse is the rough-hewn work of a talented first-timer finding his way with film at the same time as he uses the film he’s making to try to find himself. Loggerheads is the work of a pretty assured filmmaker — sometimes remarkably assured. But both films do spring from the same needs and concerns, and the dichotomy of North Carolina as a bizarre mix of the tolerant and the intolerant, the progressive and the reactionary.

Dear Jesse approaches this dichotomy by trying to understand — or at least come to terms with — what remains one of the great mysteries of this state for myself and other like-minded people: the longevity of Jesse Helms as a U.S. senator. Kirkman fled to New York upon graduating college, but decided to return to North Carolina to explore this mystery in the wake of a miserable New York winter when his boyfriend broke up with him — and after hearing that Helms was running for senator again.

Kirkman’s film, however, isn’t so much a hard-hitting political expose (after all, what’s left to expose?) as it is a combination of journey into the self (“Sometimes I feel as if I live in two worlds — one in New York, where I’m totally out of the closet, and one here, where I find myself going back in”) and of an “everyman” exploration into the power and mystique of Helms, who in many people’s minds epitomizes the state. What Kirkman finds on both counts is both instructive and entertaining — and ultimately, moving.

The theme of communication between parents and children so central to Loggerheads is very much in evidence in Dear Jesse as well — as is the awakening of the “displaced” North Carolinians to the idea that the closet they inhabited when they lived here before was in some ways self-constructed (albeit in part through the idea that the blowhard demagoguery of Helms actually represented the feelings of the whole state). In both arenas, Dear Jesse makes for essential viewing.

— reviewed by Ken Hanke

[Filmmaker Tim Kirkman will attend a one-time screening of Dear Jesse at the Fine Arts Theatre at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 29, and do a Q&A with the audience afterwards.]

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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