[Review] ‘AMERICAN MURDER: THE FAMILY NEXT DOOR’ lights up a dark matter


Courtney Howard // Film Critic


TV-MA, 83 minutes
Director: Jenny Popplewell

Though the crime at the center of documentarian Jenny Popplewell’s AMERICAN MURDER: THE FAMILY NEXT DOOR borders on cliché, the film that’s constructed is anything but commonplace. It hits on many of the expected notes that a real-life murder-mystery involving a missing mother and her toddlers should contain, yet it succeeds in the subtle ways it divulges the factual evidence. Compiling text messages and footage from police, media (both news and social), family and friends, this riveting, headline-making tale balances crime-solving with thought-provoking commentary about what insidiousness might be lurking next door.

On the morning of August 13, 2018, Shanann Watts and her two young daughters, Celeste and Bella, went missing from their home in Frederick, Colorado. While putting on a façade of concern and worry, her husband Chris started acting suspiciously almost immediately, fidgeting and noticeably overcompensating for his wife’s disappearance. The loving wife was 15 weeks pregnant with their son and seemed to be living the perfect life in their big, beautiful home in the suburbs. Her Facebook page was precisely curated with photos of their smiling, happy children, and her handsome hubby proudly donning a World’s Best Dad tee shirt. Videos introducing herself and speaking about how blessed she is also plastered the page, playing like windows into her vivacious, friendly personality.

Shanann and Chris’ marriage appeared rock solid to prying eyes. She worked from home in direct sales. He worked as an operator at an oil and gas company. However, Popplewell hints early on that things aren’t as they seem. She shows polished, pretty drone shots of suburbia scored with disquieting strings settling into the landscape, all playing under frantic texts to the missing mom from her anxious, close friend who initiated the call to the cops. Later, this study in contrasts is called upon a few more times to augment the unsettling, mounting tension between the married couple. Shanann’s vulnerabilities and sneaking suspicions that Chris was cheating on her are revealed through texts with a close friend, providing a sly juxtaposition between the projected snapshots of the couple’s photographed intimacies – hugging and kissing – rolling in the background as her confessions bubble to the surface in the foreground. Emotionally barbed texts between a pained, frustrated Shanann and a docile, apologetic Chris perfectly clash against the home videos of their innocent girls at play, as if to put a fine point on the loss of this couple’s naiveté.

Shanann and Chris Watts in happier times in AMERICAN MURDER: THE FAMILY NEXT DOOR. Courtesy of Netflix.

The collaborative effort to fashion the narrative out of a wealth of existing footage, piecing together the events surrounding Shanann and her kids’ disappearance, is evident throughout. Popplewell and her archivists aren’t necessarily interested in the minutiae of the investigation, though that is well-laid out in a coherent manner. Instead, their concern lies in examining the evidence of what led to the unthinkable occurring.

They’ve pieced together Shanann’s social media posts and cell phone footage to create a portrait of a dynamic woman who isn’t canonized but humanized. Their portrait paints two defined personalities at the core of this suburban horror. Editor Simon Barker’s instinct to not cut away, or rush through potent, enlightening sequences like Chris’ confessional weaseling out half-truths to his distraught father in the detective’s interrogation room, reflects the team’s assured techniques. It’s also commendable that “the other woman” in this scenario isn’t stereotypically treated as such. Her role is handled tenderly, not focusing on the salacious aspects of their affair. She’s another victim of Chris’ crime and dormant sociopathic narcissism.

There are fleeting, unintentional moments of levity infused as the filmmakers pull back the curtain on this family’s inner workings. Shanann’s auto-correct in her passionate texts to her friend changes a Robert-De-Niro-favorited curse word to “ducking.” Who amongst us hasn’t had that continually happen? Some of the officers’ bodycam footage shows a few burly policemen wrangling the family dog – a spunky mini-dachshund named Dieter – after Chris’ confession. All of this serves to ground the audacity of this horrific situation.

As sobering domestic abuse statistics flash across the screen before the end credits roll, it becomes clear that this is meant as a cautionary tale, alerting audiences to the warning signs of a premeditated act. It’s just a shame that this couldn’t have come sooner to rescue the subjects themselves from these heinous events.

Grade: B-

AMERICAN MURDER: THE FAMILY NEXT DOOR begins streaming on Netflix on September 30.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.