- Movie Rating -

American Murder: The Family Next Door (2020)

| September 30, 2020

There is a striking, and very current, commentary at work under Jenny Popplewell’s unsettling documentary American Murder: The Family Next Door, the story of the disappearance and murder of Shan’ann Watts and her daughters Bella (age 4) and CeCe (age 3).  Watts was, we see, a person who seemed to live online.  She smiles through the camera.  She plays with her children.  She shares her personal day-to-day life.  She shares almost everything.  But stitched together into a narrative timeline, using her home videos, her cellphone texts, her posts on social media and police video, we start to see a picture of a family coming apart, and eventually the pieces that let to her murder.

Given full access by Watts’ family, Popplewell was able to dig so completely into Watt’s life via her phone and her presence on social media platforms, plus police video, that the film almost seems to follow the crime from start to finish.  The innovation is the absence of talking heads and recollections.  What is left is a strange commentary on just how much social media records and displays the events of our day to day lives and just how much is hidden underneath. 

Shan’ann’s disappearance and murder is shocking when you see the tapestry of her life with her daughters and her handsome husband Chris.  They seem to live a beautiful life.  Their home, seen from the air with gads of bare landscape around it, looks like an upper-middle class suburb that might come right out of a magazine.  Everything is new and set proper with colors and well-kempt lawns and houses that probably cost three times what they’re worth.  It is the proper setting for this story because we just know that something wicked lurks inside.

What happened to Shan’ann and her girls?  That question immediately falls on husband/father Christopher who right away seems wildly suspicious.  His wife and kids have disappeared and he’s just not acting right.  A neighbor points this out to an investigating police officer.  And for the next 81 minutes the film shows, through video, letters and text messaging, the disintegration of this beautiful family.

This is an unsettling experience mostly because we are always present in their lives before and after the murders.  Popplewell plays out the deterioration of Chris and Shan’ann’s marriage (he had a girlfriend on the side) but lets us in on their personal lives to get there.  Most unsettling is being in the house, via police, video as the search for Shan’ann and the girls was going on.  And later being in the interrogation room as Chris is worn down by police who drive at him for answers.

The answer is, for me, the most unsettling.  This was a crime that happened for reasons that didn’t have to end with the murders of two small children.  What made this crime happen?  What leads someone to murder?  What breaks a family apart?  What part did social media have in this?

This last question, I’m afraid is the film’s major flaw.  The problem with American Murder is that it seems to be the pretext for a much larger discussion.  Chris was arrested for the crimes and, after many hours of interrogation, confessed to it.  The story made national headlines, but the movie brings up a lot of questions about social media’s role in such tragedies.  Yes, he was clearly guilty but why are we so easily led?  What can we glean from the videos that Shan’ann posted?  What was our verdict, and do we deserve one?  Those questions linger around the edges of the film and I think deserve to be explored.  This is an unsettling film, and a bit of a bummer, but I think there’s still more discussion to follow.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2020) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized