New documentary Dear Mr. Brody isn’t an Austin story, but there is a local connection to the film. The movie, which premiered at South by Southwest in 2021, tells the story of a 21-year-old idealistic hippie who sought and failed to give away his $25 million inheritance to anyone in need. Texas director Keith Maitland used two city restaurants — Nau’s Enfield Drug and Joe’s Bakery — to capture a vintage aesthetic to retell timeless relatable struggles.
Back in 1970, the peace and love movement was in full effect. Michael Brody Jr., the heir to the Jelke margarine empire, vowed to give away his $25 million inheritance to help people with their financial problems, during a press conference. They had to write him a letter requesting the amount of money they needed. Immediately, decorative personal letters from all over the world flooded his New York mailbox with pleas for themselves, their families, or others. In 10 days, the frenzy died down when it turned out many of his checks bounced due to a lack of funds. Many of the envelopes remained unopened until Maitland (who also directed the animated documentary Tower, the story of the University of Texas at Austin sniper in 1966) and his team went through them years later.
To dig into the personal stories behind the letters, Dear Mr. Brody utilizes archival footage, interviews, and reenactments. For the latter, the crew shot scenes in Austin restaurants that have been around for several decades. Each location became the setting for a flashback sequence where an actor read a real letter and addressed why they were writing for help.
Maitland commented in the film’s press notes that he wanted to depict how he and his team felt as they were going through these letters, by “putting clues of who these folks are: from their addresses, from their handwriting, the type of paper or stationery they’re using, the details they reveal about themselves,” through the recreations. “The world of the writer starts to come into view and I wanted that to come through and for them to feel a little bit like home movies,” he writes. That was done by implementing hazy cinematography, cuts to the handwriting of original letters, and the familiar looks of these family-owned restaurants.
The two restaurant scenes interestingly don’t showcase letter-writers asking for money. The first flashback was filmed at Clarksville pharmacy Nau’s Enfield Drug, which houses a cozy retro diner located in the back of the store. Opened in 1951, Nau’s is an iconic landmark in Austin and reflects a time that is long lost to high-rises and chic farm-to-table restaurants. The main draw of the retro diner is its soda fountain, burgers, and top-notch breakfast. (Due to the pandemic, the diner is still temporarily closed, but, hopefully, the restaurant will reopen eventually).
The Nau’s scene features a woman in cat-eye glasses and a green dress seated at the counter as she reads her letter while enjoying a club sandwich. She sympathizes with Brody because of his ambitious mission and its inevitable backlash. It closes with the waiter bringing her a chocolate milkshake with whipped cream and a cherry on top as a hat tip to the diner’s menu.
Later, another flashback features East Austin Tex-Mex restaurant Joe’s Bakery. The Avila family opened the restaurant in 1962, and the aroma of tacos, menudo, and barbacoa has seeped into the establishment for decades. Framed faded family photos, newspaper clippings, anniversaries, and awards over the years adorn the walls as small yet impactful mementos.
This scene takes place in Joe’s kitchen, where the letter-writer is a restaurant worker washing dishes in the sink. The man explains that he wants to contribute to the cause by sending a two-dollar check, and that “this is from the heart, not a joke.”
Ultimately, Brody did not deliver on his intentions, let alone read the tens of thousands of voices that he seemingly wanted to help. Empty pockets were met with empty promises. There were about 30,000 unread letters in boxes left. The filmmakers went through about 12,000 of these, which were then donated to Columbia University’s rare books library.
In archival press footage, Brody said that he wanted “everyone to be happy and feel love the way he does.” But that just isn’t reality, even in the 1970s. The wealth gap is still extremely large to this day, and bigger businesses are frequently overtaking locally-owned competitors. The city’s motto — Keep Austin Weird — aims at supporting local culture and businesses, but, these days, the COVID-19 pandemic and gentrification leading to numerous closures show just how fragile the small business economy is.
Dear Mr. Brody is a cinematic reflection on philanthropy and universal desires that were unmet. While there may be some financial support from larger institutions, the government, or, say, friendly millionaires, it’s never enough. The release of Maitland’s documentary is an example of good timing because it reminds audiences that everyone is struggling in one way or another, sometimes hope is enough to get people through hardships, and reliance on the community is better than a too-good-to-be-true offer.
The film is now available on the streaming service Discovery+.