WHAT JENNIFER DID – Review by Valerie Kalfrin

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Netflix’s new true-crime documentary What Jennifer Did is a serviceable why’d-she-do-it, not a gripping whodunit. While the title certainly tips its hand, the film also covers a case that’s fairly straightforward, without the suspense and twists that genre fans tend to expect.

One November night in 2010, a 911 call summoned police in Ontario, Canada, to the home of Jennifer Pan, where the frantic young woman reported that three gunmen had attacked her family. Pan said they tied her to the banister, demanded money, and shot her parents, killing her mother and severely wounding her father, sending him into a coma.

Yet while investigators treated Jennifer Pan gently at first, they were skeptical of her story. How could she call for help with her hands tied behind her back? And why would three armed robbers leave a witness alive and harmed?

Writer-director Jenny Popplewell (American Murder: The Family Next Door) intersperses police interrogation footage with news coverage, plus interviews with investigators and a few people who knew the Pans to flesh out the overall mystery. But frankly, it’s just not that engrossing.

Jennifer’s mother, Bich, and father, Hann, had immigrated from Vietnam decades earlier, and both worked at a car parts company. The cops soon learn about Jennifer’s ex-boyfriend, a drug dealer whom her parents didn’t like, and once they tug on that thread, Jennifer’s story starts to unravel. Other standard techniques like obtaining phone records uncover the rest.

The film presents a few interesting points, such as how the seemingly random home invasion rattled the suburban community of Markham, known for its diverse population and low crime. “It’s like a grenade going off,” one detective notes. Yet we don’t get an on-the-ground sense of that impact.

The Pans also apparently placed immense pressure on Jennifer, with interviews showing how they enrolled her in piano lessons as a toddler and urged her to become a pharmacist. One high school acquaintance, also Vietnamese, is sympathetic toward her at first. While this career was in line with those of her peers striving to be doctors, lawyers, and accountants, she would flounder among so many high achievers, the friend says.

Nevertheless, the film doesn’t fully explore Jennifer’s duplicity, her parents’ lives, or the gunmen, for that matter, likely because of people who didn’t cooperate. End titles reveal what happened to various parties, but this feels anticlimactic.

True crime aficionados might find What Jennifer Did passable, but casual viewers are unlikely to care.

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Valerie Kalfrin

Valerie Kalfrin is an award-winning crime journalist turned freelance film writer whose work appears at RogerEbert.com, In Their Own League, Script, The Hollywood Reporter, and other outlets. Also a screenwriter and script consultant, she’s passionate about challenging stereotypes about gender and disability. Let’s tell better stories and tell stories better.