In the last few years, true crime has taken the United States by storm. With the growth of podcasts and streaming services, true crime is more accessible and readily available than ever before.
Netflix, as one of the most popular streaming services, has put out a number of captivating documentaries based on real tragedies that occurred to everyday Americans like you and me.
It was on Netflix that I found American Murder: The Family Next Door, which follows the true story of the disappearance of Shanaan Watts and her two young girls. As somewhat of a true crime aficionado myself, I was intrigued by this film that boasts “raw, firsthand footage” in the description. It did not disappoint. Much of the footage is taken from police body cameras, home security systems, and even Shanaan’s Facebook page. It really felt like the events were unfolding in real time and as family and friends were experiencing it.
The viewer joins officers as they knock on doors and question neighbors about suspicious activity. There is footage of suspects being interviewed. Perhaps the most interesting are a significant number of clips from vlogs that Shanaan did about her family, health, and special occasions. This allows the viewer to get acquainted with the victim and see what she was like from the viewpoint of a friend on social media.
Another thing I really enjoyed about American Murder: The Family Next Door was that there was plentiful backstory. Oftentimes in true crime, there lacks a humanity about the victim. Something horrific happened to him/her and that’s the defining moment. American Murder: The Family Next Door delves deep into family dynamics, relationship problems, and personality quirks of everyone involved. Because the footage is firsthand and not recreated, the viewer witnesses the family in a more organic way and as everyday people.
Overall, American Murder: The Family Next Door is well-made. The documentary switches between progression of the case and backstory. In the beginning, the viewer follows along with the Shanaan’s family and friends as they are distraught with her disappearance. It then switches to footage from her Facebook videos about their everyday life and texts sent between Shanaan and the people in her life. This back and forth continues until a perpetrator is behind bars and the backstory is caught up with her disappearance.
I will say that this story, like many true crime stories, is chilling. The details of the case are fantastical and I found myself amazed at how twisted some people’s minds are. I watched this documentary late at night and had to find ways to get my mind off of it before trying to sleep. It is messed up.
I would recommend this movie to viewers interested in true crime, but not to people who are easily disturbed. Especially if someone is not familiar with the story, it will be shocking.