By now, most people know that what gets presented on social media may often differ greatly from the harsh reality. We pose for multiple selfies until we get “the one”. We fill our feeds with fabulous vacations, scrumptious meals, breathtaking hikes, wondrous nights at the theatre, and more. Occasionally, someone may overshare about their misery and receive a hundred #thoughtsandprayers in return or vent about orange politicians, but in general we present blissful lives to the world. Too often the complaints of the privileged few get dismissed as “champagne problems”, so better to just be happy, happy, happy all the time.
Jennifer and Sarah Hart, a married couple who lived with their six adopted children in Minnesota, then Oregon, then Washington, knew this effect all too well, presenting a perfect life on social media while clearly not doing so offline. As you may recall, in 2018, Jennifer drove herself and her family off a Pacific Coast Highway cliff. While at first ruled an accident, further investigation shed light on a premeditated murder/suicide. The new documentary, A Thread Of Deceit: The Hart Family Tragedy, produced by Rachel Morgan and Chris Kobin, runs only 57 minutes, but deftly explores the issue of public vs. private perception while also delving into what could have led these seemingly model parents to commit such a horrific act.
The producers give us a large swath of talking heads intercut with family videos and reenactments. Many of those interviewed include an assortment of family friends, neighbors, investigators and most successfully, Dr. Octavio Choi, a forensic psychiatrist, whose speculative expertise helps fill in the many blanks as to what may have happened here. We also hear from the birth parents, relatives and case workers who supported the adoption of their children. You ache for them as they wanted what was best for the children, yet ended up putting them in even more danger.
According to most of their friends, the Harts led stellar, joyful lives. Endless posts featuring their smiling children or loving interactions with people in public felt truly genuine. One picture, in fact, went viral in which then 12-year-old Devonte Hart tearfully hugged a Portland police officer at a rally in support of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri. Look a little closer, however, and you would find documented reports of child abuse within this family. Because Child Protective Services (CPS) in each state operate as their own little islands, all the Harts had to do was relocate to evade further suspicion. When they eventually settled in Washington, their next door neighbor, in the most emotionally devastating of the interviews, recounts one of the children appearing at her door in the middle of the night begging for food and help.
Much like the recent Netflix docuseries, The Trials Of Gabriel Fernandez, this film will likely evoke anger at a broken system. Many people hiding behind their keyboards spat vitriol at the friends who claimed they had no clue of the abuses rendered on these children. Sadly, CPS and the friends and neighbors barely had a chance to intervene because the Harts would pack up and leave whenever investigators closed in on them.
Because we may never know exactly what happened, the filmmakers wisely choose to focus on the blind spots we all have when faced with such perfectly curated lives. It may help wake us up to perhaps recognize when things seem eerily too good to be true. It broke my heart to hear their friends refer to this family as “one big hug” and being called murderers for making such an observation. Monsters don’t always walk around with their claws out and fangs bared. Sometimes the sweetest of exteriors belies a much more complex underbelly. While not the most cinematic of films, this documentary achieves its importance by exposing the dichotomy between our public and private personas.
Glenn Gaylord’s 50 SHADES OF GAY SCALE: A Thread Of Deceit: The Hart Family Tragedy gets a 20 out of 50. While the central story revolves around a same sex couple and their children, their sexual orientation does not play any part in trying to unravel the mystery at hand. Despite containing a slew of talking heads trying to dissect the motivations behind this tragic crime, the documentary does not delve at all into the issues of violence within same sex couplings. In fact, the sexual orientation of the parents never feels like anything more than an inherent trait.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
A Thread Of Deceit: The Hart Family Tragedy is currently available at the usual VOD streaming platforms.
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