Broken Harts


The Hart children are all smiles here (including Devonte, far right) but the smiles hide a dark secret.

(2021) True Crime Documentary (Discovery Plus) Sheriff Tom Allman, Jennifer Hart, Sarah Hart, Devonte Hart, Cynthia Bartley, Lt. Shannon Barney, Irene Vanryckeshem, Niema Lightseed, Drew Bunch, Adam Beck, Cheryl Hart, Jackie LaBrecque, Dana DeKalb, Raquel Warley, Zaron Burnett, Mia Williams, Shonda Jones, Diane Drystad, Dr. Jen Johnston. Directed by Gregory Palmer

 

On March 26, 2018, Jennifer and Sarah Hart of Woodland, Washington, along with their six adopted children, drove off the side of a 100-foot cliff in Mendocino County, California. Initially, onl the bodies of the two women and three of their children were found; over the succeeding weeks, the remains of two other children washed up on Mendocino beaches. The remains of 15-year-old Devonte were never recovered.

At first, it was thought to be a tragic accident, but as facts began to emerge, a darker picture was painted. On the surface, it appeared that Jennifer and Sarah were loving mothers whose children were smiling and happy. Jennifer’s Facebook page was filled with pictures of family outings where the kids were dancing, smiling and singing, particularly Devonte who grew into national prominence because of his appearance at rallies for Black Lives Matter following the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, MO wearing a “Free Hugs” sign around his neck. A photo of Devonte weeping as he hugged a police officer would go viral.

But the kids showed up in school with bruises, prompting the Harts to withdraw their kids from the school system and homeschooling them. Their neighbors, Bruce and Dana DeKalb, reported that the children would show up at their door begging for food, pleading with them not to tell their moms. On the 23rd of March, Child Protective Services paid two visits to the Hart home, but nobody answered the door. They came again on the 26th, but by that time th family was already dead.

The movie is presented in typical true crime documentary fashion, with plenty of home movies, still pictures and talking head interviews with law enforcement officials – primarily Sheriff Tom Allman of Mendocino County who investigated the incident – friends and analysts. Psychiatrist Dr. Jen Johnston gives rational, calm and factual information about the psychology of family annihilation, while journalist Zaron Burnett talks about the racial implications of the crime, regularly reminding us that both women were white and the six adopted children were all African-American. His claim that the women got a pass because they were white ignores the fact that most lesbians will tell you that passes are infrequently given to the LGBTQ community and that at the time of the adoptions, there were several states – including Texas, where the kids were originally from – that didn’t allow same-sex adoption, although because they went through an agency in Minnesota where the couple was living at the time, they were able to bypass those restrictions.

Palmer clearly makes Jennifer Hart the villain of the piece, making Sarah more or less an accomplice. There is an awful lot of editorializing and assumptions going on, some of it on the side of common sense, some of it a reach. Allman makes a case for a national registry of child abusers; had such a thing existed, it might have given Child Protective Services in Washington the ability to pull the kids out of the Hart home before their adoptive mothers took them on that final, tragic road trip.

While parts of the movie are dry, I thought that the real crime was trying to ascribe motives based on conjecture to be a disservice. Any good law enforcement official, particularly those involved in the prosecutorial aspect of it, will tell you that a competent investigation sticks to what can be proven. Unfortunately, the filmmakers here go too often for sensationalism and sound bites, perhaps in an effort to show that society failed these six kids. In fact, society did fail these children, but not necessarily in the way some of the commentators here opine.

REASONS TO SEE: Methodically presented.
REASONS TO AVOID: Needed more of Dr. Johnson and less of Burnett.
FAMILY VALUES: The content is disturbing overall, with descriptions of child abuse.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All of the Hart children were adopted through the Permanent Family Research Center in Minnesota.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/26/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: American Murder: The Family Next Door
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Deliver Us From Evil (2021)

American Murder: The Family Next Door


The smiling faces of the brutally murdered.

(2020) True Crime Documentary (NetflixShanann Watts, Chris Watts, Sandi Rzucek, Frank Rzucek, Celeste Watts, Bella Watts, Mark Jamieson, Ronnie Watts, Cindy Watts, Frankie Rzucek, Nickole Atkinson, Nichol Kessinger, Michael Rourke, Luke Epple, Jim Benemann, Marcelo Kopcow, Tom Mustin, Theresa Marchetta, Karen Leigh. Directed by Jenny Popplewell

 

The Watts family of Frederick, Colorado seemed to be as normal as they come. Chris Watts worked for an oil company; his wife Shanann – 15 weeks pregnant – worked for a marketing company. She had arrived home from a business trip early at nearly 2am on August 13, 2018, dropped off by her friend and colleague Nickole Atkinson. Later that day, when Shanann missed an OB-GYN appointment and after Nickole texted her friend without getting a response, Atkinson called Chris to let her know she was worried about Shanann.

At the Watts residence, it turned out that Shanann and both of their daughters – four-year-old Bella and three-year-old Celeste – were all missing. The police were called. Chris addressed the media and pleaded for the safe return of his family, but as the investigation continued, the picture of a perfect family began to unravel and it turns out that the couple was having intimacy issues, despite the fact that Shanann was pregnant.

Eventually, the truth came out and it would send shock waves throughout the community that the family lived in, but also through the families of both Chris and Shanann. Those who have any sort of interest in true crime can guess where the investigation led.

British filmmaker Popplewell takes a unique spin on the events of a case that was fairly well-known at the tail end of 2018 (he would be convicted in November of that year, a mere four months after the crimes were committed which is lightning fast by judicial standards). Rather than using tried-and-true true crime tropes like dramatic recreations, talking-head interviews with the family and friends of those involved as well as the investigators, and expert testimony, she tells the story entirely through social media posts by the victim, text messages from the victim to her husband and to Atkinson, and police surveillance footage of both the polygraph, the confession as well as body-cam footage of the initial response to the victim’s home.

I give Popplewell full marks on this unique spin on the true crime documentary. You won’t see another film quite like it, and you get a bit of a sense of who the victim was as well as her husband. This serves to give the story an immediacy that sometimes lacks from other true crime documentaries, but it also lacks the emotional impact. We see things from a distance; for the most part, the family was depicted as happy and normal but when the computer was turned off, reality was a different story. For those who routinely watch true crime shows like Dateline: NBC and 48 Hours, this will feel familiar; it will also feel like you know what happened even before the police get their confession, even if you aren’t familiar with the details of the case as Da Queen was not, yet she accurately predicted who the killer would be, basically from the moment that they were reported missing.

Fredrick is the kind of suburban neighborhood that is movie-perfect; manicured lawns and beautiful homes, kids playing in the streets, everybody knows everybody else. Spielberg couldn’t have painted a more comforting picture, but yet a brutal crime took place here nevertheless which should give the viewer pause. If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere.

REASONS TO SEE: A unique presentation of a true crime documentary.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not really very surprising for even casual followers of true crime.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The crime was also depicted in a 20/20 episode as well as on episodes of Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz. The murder was also the subject of Lifetime movie Chris Watts: Confessions of a Killer which the family of Shanann Watts was not consulted about and spoke out against
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews; Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Any number of shows on the Discovery ID channel.
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Herb Alpert Is…