Tim Kirkman's plainspoken documentary Dear Jesse addresses the five-term "Senator No" from North Carolina repeatedly over the course of its 85 minutes. Although Helms never appears to respond, it's easy to anticipate his answers, especially after the openly gay Kirkman offers countless close-ups of sensational newspaper headlines as well as insensitive replies, typed neatly on Senate letterhead, from Helms's office to concerned constituents. Like Helms, Kirkman is a son of the rural South, who grew up in "a town of banks and churches." As it so happens, however, fewer folk can be seen standing with Helms atop his conservative platform than even Kirkman reckons. Returning from self-imposed exile in New York City, where his ex remains behind eventually to commit suicide (we're never told why), Kirkman travels around his home state in his dad's truck, interviewing his parents, a cousin, old high school chums, a gay mayor, a civil rights activist, mothers who'd lost sons to AIDS, and many others, from left to right. Some support Helms; others want to unseat him; most give him the benefit of the doubt, including novelist Allan Gurganus, who admits to getting a hernia while extending a peculiar Southern gentility, fairness, and concern for character to the intractable politician.
Kirkman comes across as a thoughtful assimilationist: He simply wants gay people to be accepted as churchgoers, married couples, and parents, and can't fathom Helms's rancor, despite the provocative psychologizing of certain interviewees. Likewise, Kirkman locates his work squarely inside the antistyle, point-and-shoot tradition of documentary filmmaking, waving around a handheld camera, often vertiginously, in mostly natural light. The furthest Kirkman goes out on a limb finds him inquiring whether he and Helms might be equally "evil, dangerous, immoral," just in different ways. He answers his own question by appending eerie footage of Matthew Shepard and his African American boyfriend being interviewed outside Catawba College after a Helms lecture--two and a half years before Shepard's murder in Wyoming at the hands of homophobes. --Robert Burns Neveldine
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