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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that American Murder: The Family Next Door is a true-crime documentary about the disappearance of a woman and her two daughters and the horrific discoveries that followed. As the title implies, the documentary explores how and why a seemingly happy woman and her two young kids were murdered. While not visually graphic, the documentary goes into detail about what happened to a missing woman and her two kids and how they were killed. The story is told through source material such as police camera footage, social media posts and videos, texts, and police interrogation room cameras. In texts, the woman discusses her sex life with her best friend, her desires for sex, and the lack of sex from her husband. Some profanity, spoken and in text, including "f--k." The story and disturbing nature of these murders and how they are presented makes this best for mature teens and adults.
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What's the story?
AMERICAN MURDER: THE FAMILY NEXT DOOR uses raw footage to tell the story of the 2018 disappearance of Shannann Watts and her two daughters Bella and Cece. On social media, it looked like Shanann, her husband Chris, and their kids were living a wonderful life in Colorado. Then, after returning from a business trip, Shannan and her kids disappeared. Concerned friends called the police, and as Chris arrived from work to let them into the house, they found the house empty, with Shannann's personal items still in plain sight in the house. When news cameras arrived, Chris pleaded for the safe return of Shannann, Bella, and Cece. However, when he took a polygraph test, a different story began to emerge. Marital woes and an extramarital affair led to horrifying consequences, and as Chris' alibi began to unravel, family members, police detectives, and the community were shocked and devastated by these incomprehensible murders.
Is it any good?
From a production standpoint, this documentary is very good. Told through raw (sometimes painfully so) footage like social media posts, police cameras, and texts, the horrific account of the disappearance of a Colorado woman and her two kids and the process of uncovering what really happened unfolds like a well-paced mystery story. The events and the backstory of the people involved are balanced, and the direct events of the disappearances, the discoveries, the trial, and the aftermath reveal how these murders were covered by the national media as well as the appalling participation in the case by many on social media.
The problem with American Murder: The Family Next Door is that this wasn't a mystery. A woman and two kids were senselessly murdered, and while there's a disturbing statistic at the end of the movie ("In America, three women are killed by their current or ex-partner every day."), the experience of watching this feels voyeuristic and downright creepy. Text exchanges in which the murdered woman discusses her sex life or lack thereof start to feel gratuitous. The spectacle of the story outweighs any attempt at substantive discussion about what might be done to prevent murders like these from happening. It leads one to wonder why cable channels and streaming services seem to prefer putting out far more sensationalized "documentaries" about Hitler, Ted Bundy, and incomprehensible acts of abhorrent criminality from deranged minds as opposed to documentaries on Mother Teresa, Civil Rights icons, and affirming acts of human decency and selflessness. Viewers are likely to leave this documentary feeling unsettled and disturbed.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about true-crime documentaries. How does American Murder: The Family Next Doo compare to other movies centered on real-life crimes and their consequences?
How does the movie use source material like texts, social media, and police camera footage to tell the story?
When searching cable television and streaming platforms, one is likely to find lots of programs and true-life features on evil dictators, serial killers, and horrific crimes, and fewer about uplifting and inspiring leaders, everyday heroes, and stories of basic human decency. Why is that?
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