The documentary “Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine” attempts to tell the story of the young man before he was murdered in 1998. (Education Pictures/Run Rabbit Run Media)

The 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, in which two men brutally beat the 21-year-old gay college student and left him tied to a fence, transfixed the nation. The media flooded little Laramie, Wyo., celebrities spoke at vigils and Shepard’s name became a rallying cry against hate crimes.

Fewer people know about Matthew Shepard’s life. Before he became a symbol, he was just a gregarious kid trying to figure out life, which is what Michele Josue aims to show in her poignant documentary “Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine.”

Josue went to boarding school in Switzerland with Shepard, and she tracked down a wide swath of people — friends from growing up in Wyoming, classmates from Switzerland, a teacher, a guidance counselor, a priest and Shepard’s parents — to tell stories about his life. She also culled diary entries, old letters, photos and home videos to create a rich portrait of her friend, free of hero worship.

Many of the most poignant moments involve Shepard’s parents, who are intensely watchable interview subjects, full of touching and often funny anecdotes about their son’s abbreviated life. Judy Shepard, especially, makes a strong impression with her sardonic insights of how she knew her son was gay about a decade before he came out to her. (His love for dressing up like Dolly Parton was one clue, she says.)

In the process of drilling down into Shepard’s past, Josue does something even more interesting: She explores her own quest for understanding and closure — if such a thing even exists. The movie becomes a tool for coming to terms with tragedy.

If the director wanted to rehumanize Shepard, she has succeeded. Her other goal, though worthwhile, was not so easy to accomplish: to make sense of a horrific event and move on.

Unrated. At AMC Loews Shirlington 7. Contains homophobic slurs and troubling images. 89 minutes.