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WHEN I LAST SAW JESSE (2019) review

April 2, 2020



produced by: Brian Robert Rose
directed by: Brian Robert Rose
rated: not rated
runtime: 88 mins
U.S. release date: September 7, 2019 (Gene Siskel Film Center Chicago) & March 13, 2020 (Amazon Prime) 


“How do you come to a family who has a missing student and say, ‘Oh, here’s his stuff’?”


Narrative resolution is something which audiences members crave, whether or not they’re aware that’s what they want. Ambiguity has always worked better on stage than it has on film, mainly because a film audience has a certain need for closure by the time the film cuts to black. The 2019 documentary “When I Last Saw Jesse” is full of ambiguity, a sort of real world “Rashomon” wherein several different witnesses all have differing versions of events. Unlike Kurosawa’s masterpiece, however, there is no closure offered by this film, leaving audiences in much the same place as the missing boy’s family and friends.

Filmmaker Brian Robert Rose didn’t know Jesse Ross or his family prior to embarking on this project, but his passion and thirst for answers is as palpable as theirs. In 2006, 19-year old Ross was a sophomore at University of Missouri Kansas City when he got involved with his school’s Model UN. The students in the organization made a trip to Chicago in November, 2006 for a Model UN conference, one of thousands of class trips taken by students in a given year.




The final night of the conference, November 21, 2006, Jesse attended an early morning UN Security Council meeting with many of his fellow students. Halfway through the meeting, Jesse got up and walked out a door in the conference room and was never seen again. Theories abound as to what may have happened to Jesse from his being mugged to potentially having fallen into the frigid waters of the Chicago River, but nearly every possible solution is a wholly unsatisfactory dead end.

To crib a phrase from Mystery Science Theater 3000’s episode on “Manos: The Hands of Fate,” every frame of this film looks like someone’s last known photograph. Rose’s film traffics in that grainy domain which haunts people in the present due to the unsettling background of such photographs. That the film actually contains Ross’ last known photograph—security footage of Ross entering the Sheraton Hotel early in the morning of November 21—only furthers this theme. This gives the film’s events, which happened less than 15 years ago, a kind of resigned urgency, a knowledge that answers are likely out there, it’s just that no one knows where to look for them.




Rose also eschews the typical talking head interviews that have come to define the true crime documentary form over the decades. He opts instead to simply use the interviews he conducted solely as voiceover, always indicating who is speaking, but keeping the audience at a distance. The technique is surprisingly effective, sparing viewers the pain of seeing very raw emotions come across the faces of those speaking. This helps ground the viewers in the place where Jesse disappeared, wandering the halls of the Sheraton hoping to find any trace of the young man.

As various versions of the night’s events are doled out by various students and chaperones on the trip, the feeling of immense hopelessness becomes all too real. Viewers are sure to be left dissatisfied by the utter lack of leads which have developed over the last decade and a half, but such is the world in which we live. Answers, no matter how easily or hard-gotten they may be, are a necessity of human life. The dearth of answers in this particular case place the audience in the shoes of everyone involved in the making of the film, utterly exasperated and frustrated by the absence of anything even resembling a conclusion.

Ultimately “When I Last Saw Jesse” feels like an unfinished work because it partially is one. That’s not a slight against the filmmaker, but rather a fact that must be accepted by the audience, just as it has been accepted by the people in Jesse’s life. I can empathize with those viewers who grow frustrated by the filmmaker’s inability to reach a satisfactory conclusion, but not every story gets one. So it is, sadly, with Jesse Ross’ story, which is unfortunately another case of gone but not forgotten.





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