Films about the U.S. military are tricky to pull off: easily they can skew “rah rah” jingoistic about the United States military industrial complex. There’s also a penchant to rely on cliché melodrama, or, on the other end of the spectrum, resort to something that is overtly political and finger-wagging in nature, critiquing the system while largely ignoring or simplifying the individual and nuanced stories of those who are literally risking their lives in service.
Merit x Zoe from director Kyle Hausmann-Stokes largely manages to avoid the pitfalls associated with “military” movies. Hausmann-Stokes crafts a relatable friendship drama that happens to be set in the U.S. Army. The film is clearly a “PSA Short” (it’s being released on Memorial Day 2022 with support of the Bob Woodruff Foundation, The Mission Continues, Everytown for Gun Safety), but it is an exceptionally well-crafted one, leaning less on the overt message and focusing, instead, on the camaraderie between two battle buddies whose relationship is forced to exist in front of the backdrop of the battlefield. The film doesn’t totally avoid clichés, but it also is self-aware enough to never lean fully into them. I especially appreciated the sarcasm and initial disdain Zoe shows for the veteran group therapy session (a setting that could have very easily been too much of a trope).
The film relies on a twist to relay its central points about PTSD and self-harm. And, as a curator who watches a lot of short films, I don’t think the central reveal is as surprising as the film ostensibly thinks it is (I personally found it fairly obvious within the first few minutes). But, still, when the reveal does happen, it shook me on a deep and emotional level, which, I feel, is indicative of its success. Hausmann-Stokes is smart enough to realize that the real power of his story isn’t the revelatory nature of its structure, but rather the very human relationship at its core. Ultimately this isn’t a story about losing a soldier…it’s about losing a friend: a heart wrenching prospect regardless of your relationship with the military.
As he shares with Short of the Week:
“The film is partly about my journey with PTSD after the Army, also about two of my platoon mates, my battle buddies, who survived our combat tour in Iraq only to later lose their battle with suicide. We veterans are some of the toughest, most resilient humans you will ever meet. But for those same reasons, we can be particularly unwilling to seek help or acknowledge our vulnerabilities. Multiple studies have shown that there are three things that everyone, especially us veterans, can be proactive about that will have an overwhelming impact on our wellbeing. Our mental health, our sense of purpose/community, and our relationship/access to guns. This film shows what can happen, what did happen to two of my friends, when these things are neglected.”
While suicide as a subject, tends to be over-represented in indie cinema, I appreciate that Merit x Zoe is less about the physical act of self harm and more about the consequences that reside in the aftermath…for those left behind. The result is that Hausmann-Stokes has made both a fitting tribute to his friends as well as a powerful PSA about a very serious topic. He’s done all this with an impressive amount of technical craft (the film feels big-budget in scope and look, and I mean that in the best of ways).
I do hope that Merit x Zoe is successful in its mission of reaching its target audience about a subject that many soldiers are afraid to discuss openly. And, on a day in the United States designated to honor those who have served, it’s a fitting reminder that taking care of our service members is a lifelong commitment that exists long after they have retired from uniform.