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I Just Killed My Dad is a smart and surprisingly empathetic true-crime story-Entertainment News , Firstpost

The three-part docu-series expertly reveals the context behind the case of a teenager who shoots his father dead.

Just when I was starting to think “Another day, another Netflix true-crime docu-series about a dysfunctional American family,” the sensationally titled I Just Killed My Dad surprised me. Not with the twists and turns of the real-world story itself – which, to nobody’s surprise, is stranger and spookier than fiction. But with its tone. Here’s a rare three-part investigative docu-series more concerned with human closure than narrative suspense; with difficult questions rather than easy answers; with the rehabilitation and restoration of identity rather than the restriction of spirit; and most of all, with the asterisks of the criminal justice system and societal perception. The gaze is almost hopeful, which is a weird thing to say about a documentary that opens with a teenager who shoots his dad dead.

I Just Killed My Dad is about the case of Anthony Templet, a 17-year-old from Louisiana who called 911 in mid-2019 to confess that he had killed his father. Anthony himself appears before the camera in the beginning, admitting that he wants to clear his name and prove he isn’t a crazy murderer. He speaks in a monotone; his eyes are curiously dead. It becomes clear that the documentary will set out to deconstruct our preconceived notions about sociopaths – Anthony Templet fits the profile, sure, but is that really enough? What follows is a 360-degree view of the incident that night, supplemented by his own recollections, officer statements, eerie reconstructions, detective angles as well as a thorough assortment of observers who seem to be torn between what they knew and what they later discovered. There are all the Netflix tropes, of course: the gory details, the red herrings, the cliffhanger endings, the shady characters, the perpetual zooming out from a story that is way broader than it appears.

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But the story refuses to be defined by the incident. The second and third episodes dare to read between the lines, revealing the agency embedded between innocence and guilt. It is steadily revealed that Anthony was no average privileged brat; he was the long-time victim of an abusive parent who stunted his growth in order to control him. The dead eyes and lack of facial expression are actually numbness, derived from years of suppression and a caged life. Anthony was homeschooled badly, not allowed to make friends, tracked electronically and ill-treated by a father who snatched him away from his mother as an infant. As we learn more about the checkered history of the man that Anthony killed, the true implications of Anthony’s actions emerge.

A lawyer enters the fray; a biological mother speaks out; a stepmother asks for subtext; a social system recalibrates its sense of punishment and justice. The documentary fully invests in each of these faces, too, as people and not passive players: signifying its willingness to engage with why Anthony’s case is so unique, why they choose to believe in his innocence despite all the evidence against him. We begin to sympathize with the boy who was never allowed to evolve and know the difference between self-defense and violence. In hindsight, moments like Anthony casually describing his expectations after shooting his dad – that the man would survive, that Anthony would be rescued, that the cops would let him go after hearing his story – are heartbreaking, because they convey his limited understanding of civilization. He hasn’t been taught how to be human, and yet, there’s something shatteringly human about his situation.

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In many ways, I Just Killed My Dad reminded me of Girl in the Picture, a recent Netflix true-crime documentary about a teenage girl whose childhood was robbed by an abusive father. Girl in the Picture, too, eschewed the voyeuristic lens of the genre and painted an empathetic portrait of who the girl was, and how her life was worth being celebrated; it never offered undue attention to her abuser, and chose to end with an unusual brand of optimism and respect. The format is almost the same, with good samaritans and compassionate relatives fighting to restore the identity and legacy of the victim. It makes more sense once you realize that the director of both titles is the same: Skye Borgman. And it’s even more poignant once you realize that thematically, I Just Killed My Dad is natural progression – and perhaps some sort of creative catharsis – for the non-fiction film-maker.

Girl in the Picture opened with the murder of the girl, which means she never lived to see the decades-long investigation and redemption of image that followed. Her family and friends battle to remember her the right way, long after she’s gone. Anthony, on the other hand, represents the opposite end of the spectrum: the film opens with him killing his abuser, but lives to see the light at the end of a dark tunnel. The two narratives are joined at the hip, with Anthony’s legal fate revealing the film-maker’s subconscious quest to locate an alternate ending – and a sequel-ish sense of dignity – to the typical American horror story.

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Even more striking is Anthony’s physical transformation between 2019 and 2021 (when a decision about him is made), which not only reinforces his presence and survival but also puts into perspective his perceived lack of mental growth. He sounds self-aware and conscious by the end, a different person altogether, if not entirely emotive. He even walks awkwardly, like a young man who hasn’t seen enough kids his age to know how to walk. But even this image of intellectual inertia is put to rest in the documentary’s exquisitely placed final shot – one of a younger Anthony breaking down months after being released from prison. The timing of this shot suggests that the documentary deliberately holds a mirror to our flawed reading of the relationship between trauma and expression – playing along with it before dismantling it in style. He was not in the picture; the picture was in him all along, simply waiting to be seen.

I Just Killed My Dad is streaming on Netflix

Rahul Desai is a film critic and programmer, who spends his spare time travelling to all the places from the movies he writes about.

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