‘What Jennifer Did’ Review: New Netflix True-Crime Documentary Is Pretty Well-Made But Very Formulaic

At this point, I’ve got to say that true crime documentaries have sort of become the bread and butter for Netflix. They keep churning them out, one after another, and we keep gobbling them. I’m not going into the good or bad, but the truth is, this has just become a culture. The latest one in the block is What Jennifer Did, which is about a young woman getting convicted for the murder of her mom and the attempted murder of her dad. The description itself pretty much explains why Netflix would make a documentary out of it. In this article, we’re going to get into “what” Jennifer really did and how the one-and-a-half-hour-long documentary turned out to be for us, from the perspective of the audience.


What Happens In The Documentary?

It begins with a 911 call—the kind of stuff you see in movies and shows. Only this one is very real, where you get to hear the screaming voice of Jennifer Pan, who’s going all hysterical about her home being invaded and her parents getting shot. Her reaction is very understandable when you consider the gravity of such a situation. It is eventually revealed that Jennifer’s mom, Bich, is dead, and her father, Han, is in a coma.

The Markham neighborhood of Ontario is probably one of the safest areas of the whole country, if you consider the low crime rate. Naturally, a very random home invasion and shooting in a place like that is unexpected, to say the least! And what’s even more baffling is that the family at the center of the tragedy happens to have a very regular, working-class background. It’s only normal for Detective Bill Courtice to feel both shocked and surprised after receiving a call about the incident, which also puts him in charge of the investigation.


The investigation begins in due course, following the standard procedure. In her first interview, Jennifer, looking visibly scared and heartbroken, describes what went on at her house on that ill-fated night. It was like a regular night—dinner was over early, Bich went to Line Dancing, and both Han and Jennifer were in their rooms. The intruders came only after Bich returned, and according to Jennifer, she didn’t hear a doorbell or anything. Soon, she found herself at the mercy of the intruders, who ordered her to cooperate if she didn’t want to get hurt. And so she did, before being tied to the bannister. She heard her mom scream and then being shot to death. Soon she heard two more gunshots, clearly meant for her father. It’s only after that that she called 911, and the rest followed.

The very obvious question that comes up here is the motive, especially considering no money or valuable items were taken from the Pan household. The police look into all logically possible angles, like either Bich or Han being involved in some kind of shady business, from drug dealing to money laundering, but nothing comes out of that. The Pan couple were nothing but regular; the husband worked as a machinist and the wife was a car company supervisor. Even their neighbors confirm that there was nothing weird about the Pans. 


The first break for the investigation team comes with the discovery of Jennifer’s ex-boyfriend, Danny, who used to be a drug dealer. The police soon bring him in, and he doesn’t deny having had a relationship with Jennifer and also dealing drugs once upon a time. He also mentions that Bich and Han were very much against their relationship, and that was the reason for their breakup. However, Danny and Jennifer are still in touch, and they both happen to receive strange phone calls and threatening text messages for a while. We also get to know that Danny is currently dating another woman named Christine. In her second interview, Jennifer claims that she didn’t mention dating a former drug dealer because she had a lot on her mind, which does sound believable.

The thing about lies is that you always need more lies to cover up the first one. For Jennifer, though, it turns out to be a bucket full of lies. Once the Danny thing is out there, all the lies start to come out one after another. And with that, things start to become clearer. It’s a no-brainer that Jennifer had a rift with her parents regarding her relationship with Danny. That’s a very common issue, though, especially in South-East Asian households, and clearly not everyone kills their parents for it. But that’s not the issue here. It turns out that Jennifer also lied to her parents about her education as well. There’s a justification, though: Han wanted Jenny to become a pharmacist while she had kinesiology in her mind. Jennifer couldn’t revolt against her father’s wish, but she also decided to not go to university and eventually forge her degree. And when her parents found out about what she had done, they were obviously not very pleased and wanted their money back. Her career is pretty much in the ruins, and her parents have done enough to kill her relationship—this pushed Jennifer to think of extreme measures. It’s not everyday that you literally hire people to kill your parents, but that’s exactly what Jennifer Pan did. Although she refuses to acknowledge it first and keeps claiming the hit was meant to be for her. But for detective Bill Goetz, who has a specialization in catching lies, getting the real truth out of Jennifer turns out to be rather easy. Danny also gets apprehended for being an associate and supplying Jenny with the contact details of one “Homeboy,”  who’s also caught eventually. Danny’s action, especially considering he moved on from Jenny and had a new girlfriend, is particularly stupid, but people often do stupid, inexplicable things that become the cause of their own destruction.



Here’s the thing: when you have a title like What Jennifer Did,  you can’t beat around the bush for one second. You need to tell your audience what Jenny really did in the very first moment. But director Jenny Popplewell decides to take the usual documentary route of hyping up things for quite a while, which is a foolish move considering the name and also because people can just go to Google and find out about Jennifer’s deed. And to be very honest, the whole “How could this happen? There hasn’t been a case more sensational than this! This was certainly the strangest thing ever.” routine is rather frustrating to watch, especially when we know for a fact that the documentary is about one particular thing only.

Other than the basic mistake, What Jennifer Did does fairly well in other aspects. Not that it tries anything particularly original or innovative, but it does manage to keep the audience hooked. Another praiseworthy thing has to be the very little use of re-enactments and mostly live footage. Also, literally every person who was involved in the investigation gets to be a part of the documentary, which only proves the director’s seriousness in terms of telling the story as authentically as possible. 


By no means can What Jennifer Did be called a bad documentary; in fact, it’s just the opposite. It’s engaging, solidly made, and supremely entertaining (although this is probably not the kind of word I should use here) for the most part. But it is also way too formulaic, and by now we’ve probably seen tons of other good documentaries like this. I do feel that with the kind of content it had in store, What Jennifer Did could have at least tried to be a little experimental and edgy. 

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Rohitavra Majumdar
Rohitavra Majumdar
Rohitavra likes to talk about movies, music, photography, food, and football. He has a government job to get by, but all those other things are what keep him going.

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