Movie Reviews: When I Last Saw Jesse (2019)

We have a special treat for all you regular readers of these reviews (and for those just dropping in).  I’ve mentioned before that the general process for picking films to cover here simply involves writing up reviews for whichever films I see in theaters (with few exceptions).  While I did have the privilege to write up a review for a film which was sent to me once before, I received an even more daunting (yet exciting) request.  I’ve been familiar with CineCraft for years now dating back to the AV Club when we both posted there.  How well they knew me then (or now for that matter) I don’t know, but they were always a commenter to note, always knowledgeable about movies.  They have since become a frequent poster over here on The Avocado as well and I’m sure that many of you also know that they have completed a movie of their very own.

When I Last Saw Jesse is a documentary about the disappearance of 19 year old Jesse Ross.  On November 21, 2006, Ross was last seen at a hotel in Chicago where he was attending a college model United Nations conference and to this day, but after that, he was never seen nor heard from again.  No footage of him exists exiting the hotel (despite him being photographed entering it two hours earlier) or from any cameras anywhere else and despite police suspicions that he fell into the Chicago River, attempts to search it have turned up nothing.  While I would normally be hesitant to spoil a case for potential viewers that is out of the wide public eye (to maintain the suspense), the film is fairly upfront about the status of the case from the opening minutes.

There’s no real resolution understandably, no big revelations or twists and on the one hand it’s the kind of thing that drives me away from certain True Crime type stories (a label this doc rubs up against but can’t exactly be classified as such), but after films like Three Identical Strangers, I’ve come to appreciate the simplicity it offers.  More details about the case and the evidence (or relative lack thereof) are revealed throughout, but it’s not the sole focus of the movie.

Perhaps the most novel bit about When I Last Saw Jesse is the format.  It eschews the typical talking heads and instead layers the interviews with family, classmates, and police over footage (existing and newly shot) and pictures.  The new footage is in grainy black and white 16mm film taking the role of both establishing shots and reenactments.  Unlike traditional reenactments however, these are handled merely through filming the empty spaces which the events took place in, the camera often tracing the path through which Jesse or the speaker traveled.  We do occasionally get glimpses of hands when something needs to be opened on screen, but those are rare.  It’s a disorienting, lonely experience which may possibly be intentional given the subject matter.

The format doesn’t help with the pace though which is slow to get started.  The emptiness conveys a lot, but before we have fully gotten invested, I kept feeling eager to get some more info on our missing person.  Once the film starts to really get into his disappearance, the film picks up considerably and finds its groove, weaving in those details with stories about Ross as a person that might give a hint to what happened, but more importantly flesh him out as a human being.  The quality of a number of the sourced pictures isn’t always the best and they are often rather indistinct from the lens flares.  It’s understandable considering I doubt they were expecting the photos to be featured in a film when they were taken, but I’m not sure they all added something.  Otherwise, all the film sources seem to be integrated well with the new footage suitably shot.

It’s an overall quiet documentary.  It’s not one that has its sights set on uncovering some deep truth or expose anything/anyone.  It’s a doc that seeks to paint a portrait of a complex, if very normal. person whose existence very easily could have been forgotten that night if it wasn’t for the efforts of others to keep the search for him (or at least what happened to him alive).  It’s a mystery no one is closer to solving and while it may not be one destined to spawn debates over what happened, it’s still a mystery that manages to be compelling throughout.

“When I Last Saw Jesse will have its first public screening on Sunday, April 14 at the Cinemark Plaza Theater, as part of the closing night lineup of the KC Film Festival. Showtime will be announced shortly.”

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