Review: A Giveaway Gets Back So Much More in Return in Keith Maitland’s Compassionate “Dear Mr. Brody”

“It’s a classic American story,” Don Enright says of Michael Brody Jr. as he recalls in “Dear Mr. Brody” how his former high school classmate’s father came into wealth, working his way up from a steel mill to attending Harvard where he would meet the heiress to Jelke’s Good Luck Margarine fortune. After his parents died, Brody Jr. would be inspired to author his own variation on the American dream, offering up $25 million in January of 1970 to those who sent him letters outlining why they needed the money, inspiring thousands of all ages to write and ultimately the most American thing about it may have been that it turned out to be an illusion.

In following up “Tower,” an inventive recounting of the 1966 massacre at the University of Texas where 16 people were killed by a lone gunman – their memories made vivid by the use of rotoscoped animation – Keith Maitland turns out to be the ideal director to take on the twisty tale of Brody Jr., an arguably well-intentioned hippie who may not have been entirely sober when he grabbed the press’ attention by announcing his plan to give away his millions on the tarmac descending from a rented Pan-Am plane and subsequently capturing the imagination of the country. With Brody Jr. no longer around to tell his story, that responsibility falls largely to his former wife Rene, who knew of his impetuousness firsthand from when he announced they were getting married a day after first meeting, but their story recedes to the background as Maitland uncovers what happened with all those letters, still mostly unopened.

Soon enough, Maitland and crew find themselves following Melissa Robyn Glassman, an industrious former employee of Ed Pressman, into the storage locker of the famed New York-based producer where she once found 12 boxes labeled “Brody,” and fifty years on, she begins opening them, learning of the businesses people wanted to start or the bills they wanted to pay off with the money Brody Jr. was offering. It’s heartbreaking to know that Brody Jr. didn’t offer anywhere near the amount of financial help he promised when so many reached out to him in desperation — some confidants surmise he read a few letters and couldn’t go on — but “Dear Mr. Brody” makes the most of its unique time capsule situation by affording the children of parents who wrote to Brody Jr. and may now have passed an opportunity to spend a little more time with them, or reacquaint those who are still alive with their younger selves.

Maitland tastefully recruits actors to recite the letters as if they were composing them into bring them into the present moment, but the content of the letters do that themselves as well when not only the fears that fuel so many of the letters remain unfortunately all too familiar now, but perhaps also the fact that not everyone writes with their hand out, with many sending along bracelets or drawings as something to offer some hope back to Brody Jr. and others recognizing that his brash public display may come from a place of need as well and send their support. It’s a wild story, but always a heartfelt one and Maitland and editor Austin Reedy wisely structure the film around how you can never know what another person’s going through, when people are clearly pouring their hearts out to a stranger in ways they likely wouldn’t dare to those around them while Brody Jr. seems like an enigma to those closest to him in their recollections.

Since the letters were bestowed to Pressman as part of a deal to develop a feature on Brody Jr.’s life that never got made, that a documentary yielded a stranger tale than fiction ever could with just a little patience (and with Pressman still participating as a subject and an executive producer) is just one irony of many for a film that narratively becomes a gift that just keeps on giving. In the end, Brody Jr. may not have been able to spread around what personal wealth he had, but “Dear Mr. Brody” reveals a man — and the people who wrote to him — who had plenty to offer.

“Dear Mr. Brody” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It was scheduled to premiere at the Telluride Film Festival.