In 2018, 34-year-old Shanann Watts and her two young daughters went missing in Frederick, Colorado. As heartbreaking details emerged, their story made headlines worldwide. Told entirely through archival footage that includes social media posts, law enforcement recordings, text messages and never-before-seen home videos, director Jenny Popplewell pieces together an immersive and truthful examination of a police investigation and a disintegrating marriage. AMERICAN MURDER: THE FAMILY NEXT DOOR is the first film to give a voice to the victims.
I am a huge fan of true crime. Whenever I can’t find something I want to watch on television, I’ll immediately turn to one of the numerous 24hr true crime oriented stations and leave it on in the background. My husband and I always joke when an episode begins, “The husband did it.” We laugh because it’s cliche but usually true. Netflix’s new documentary from director Jenny Popplewell is a different approach to this kind of investigation on film. This carefully crafted doc has an intimacy that feels invasive. That is entirely the point. Through eerie bodycam footage, you’re in the room experiencing what officers, friends, and family did as the truth is slowly revealed. The audience feels like they are living this tragedy in realtime.
We are privy to Shanann’s text messages that lead up to these horrific events. We see videos she shared with her followers on social media. Little by little, we see the deterioration of a relationship. Rather than the stale, faceless narration that usually accompanies the genre, we are hearing directly from Shanann as she confronts her own faults, questions her choices, and gets real with her husband Chris, and her closest friends. It is one of the most brutally honest docs I’ve seen. Oftentimes cringeworthy. You’ll think to yourself, “I shouldn’t be reading these messages,” but they are essential pieces of the puzzle.
Once the truth came to light, I was weeping. As a mother of two young children, the same ages as Bella and Cece, I could not wrap my brain around these atrocities. I cannot seem to shake this film. It is a visceral sadness. Fair warning to any viewer with children of their own. This will tap into something primal. The most successful aspect of this film is that it focuses solely on Shanann and the girls. No traditional sitdown interviews with anyone, with the exception of video footage of Chris and the police while he is interrogated. There are zero crime photos or autopsy reports. It is the most humanizing true crime doc out there. Netflix and Popplewell have given genre fans a new form of storytelling and a voice to the victims.
AMERICAN MURDER: THE FAMILY NEXT DOOR will be released globally on Netflix on September 30.