Review: Jimmy in Saigon

Written and directed by Peter McDowell, a man embarks on a journey to uncover the truth behind his brother’s mysterious death. Frustrated by the secrecy – and possible shame – of his parents and desperate to uncover the mysteries surrounding both Jimmy’s life and his death, Peter ventures on a quest for the truth.

To lose a sibling at the very young age of five must be an extremely strange experience, losing them before you’ve ever really have the chance to get to know them. Added to your family not being forthcoming about their last years, it’s no wonder that Peter McDowell was so determined to find out what really happened. Undoubtedly, there’s a certain level of obsession with this kind of relentless search but it comes from a loving and curious place. That energy is clear from the get-go, it has a great opening which kicks off a sincere, investigative and inquisitive tone. There’s also a mysterious edge to the story, a shroud of silence which has to be gradually pushed away.

It’s a very intimate story, McDowell is diving into the personal details of his brother’s life, things that Jimmy likely never intended for his family to know. However, the way that he handles it is respectful and loving, he doesn’t push harshly for details, he enquires with a caring tone and let’s the people he encounters tell him their story, however they want to tell it and whatever they’re comfortable divulging. Luckily for viewers, what they do have to tell is worth waiting for. There’s also an affecting vein of sadness which runs through it, not only for Jimmy to have lost his life at such a young age but also of his mother’s struggle with learning about his past. You can plainly see the hesitancy she has to open those old wounds, for her to have to close herself up like that is heart-breaking. It’s a brief window into the film’s larger roots in grief but it’s undoubtedly a theme that subtly permeates the whole film, even if it does generally take a more hopeful path.

There’s also a great pace to Jimmy in Saigon, it continually has more to add and new people to meet. Realistically, looking at the film as a whole, there isn’t that much to learn about Jimmy’s sadly short years after the war but it still moves along well. Largely due to the tone striking a mix of sweet, sad and intimate. Seeing it through McDowell’s eyes is the piece which really brings it together, drawing you deeper in, it’s so easy to get invested with such a relatable, sympathetic edge. It’s edited well, the home video footage portrays a quintessential American family, it’s so nostalgic it almost feels fabricated.

Jimmy in Saigon takes viewers along for the ride on Peter McDowell’s sweet and touching quest for the truth. It’s a loving, engaging and sympathetic story which moves from a picturesque 50s American family to a struggling man alone and hiding the truth from his family, and the brother who refuses to let go of his memory. It’s a testament to how we pay respect to lost loved ones.

Verdict: ✯✯✯✯ | 8/10

Reviewed as part of BFI Flare 2022

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