The discovery of a van at the bottom of a Mendocino County, California cliff in 2018 set in motion an investigation that revealed a shocking family annihilation at the heart of what first appeared to be a tragic accident. The material facts of the Hart family are perhaps as completely known as it will ever be in 2021, and Gregory Palmer’s documentary uses this closure as a jumping-off point to explore systemic and system-supported abuse rather than the salacity or mysterious motivations of a “true crime” angle. Broken Harts is thus a thorough, measured, unsensationalised account of a preventable tragedy that mourns the children while not seeking understanding for abusers.
Broken Harts is comprised of recorded calls, social media extracts, police files, and interviews with those professionally or personally connected to the Hart family. Its opening assumes no prior knowledge of the case, letting the investigators talk the audience through the discovery of the van and the first bodies as clues quickly debunk theories of an accidental wreck. Once the documentary moves into an exploration of Jen and Sarah Hart’s social media presences and public image work – in contrast to the concerns of teachers, friends, and neighbours – a compelling picture emerges behind the adoptive parents’ active image manipulation. Talking heads interviewees come from law enforcement, child protective services, the media, and the Hart’s acquaintances. All are tightly scripted to highlight the facts of this family annihilation rather than feelings around the case – a strong, if sterile, approach.
Much of the film focuses on Devonte Hart – fifteen at the time of the crash. Just over three years prior he had been photographed in Portland hugging a police officer during a protest following the acquittal of Michael Brown’s shooter. Sarah Harts’ use of his image and ebullient personality on her social media, earning her thousands of likes and a reputation as a progressive, modern parent. These smiling photos, contrasted against Devonte’s plea for food behind his mothers’ backs, highlight the malleability and incompleteness of social media presentation. The domestic abuse investigations in multiple states, at multiple times, that were closed with insufficient evidence and did not prevent the Harts adopting more children were not compatible with a narrative of social justice and palatable, liberal platitudes of unity.
At the film’s conclusion, an interviewee points out that the easiest way to accept the Harts in life was as “a quickly understood symbol – a Black boy with Free Hugs on his chest.” Broken Harts avoids the extremes of outrage in its presentation and reveals nothing new about the case – but this is not its place. Instead, it offers a multifaceted look at criminals beyond easy understanding or analysis. The investigations have concluded, the verdicts reached, and the family entirely gone. Perhaps its purpose is in exploring the chilling patterns and invisibility of child abuse in a country with no national, centralised record of abusers. Perhaps the next case will not be so easily ignored.
Broken Harts is available to stream exclusively on Discovery+ from May 18th
by Carmen Paddock
Carmen is an American living in Scotland. She holds a Masters in International Film Business from the University of Exeter / London Film School, and while now working in technology she keeps her love of film alive through overenthusiastic writing and an unhealthy amount of time spent at the cinema. Favourite films include West Side Story, 10 Things I Hate About You, Ever After, and Thor: Ragnarok. Follow her on Twitter @CarmenChloie