“Citizen Sleuth” is an interesting exploration of the lines between true crime investigation and exploitation. [SXSW]

True Crime podcasts are a dicey guilty pleasure: on one hand, the reinterpretation/summary of gruesome and/or strange murders can be enticing to delve into; on the other hand, you risk crashing into the space of exploiting the tragic lives in these cases. In Citizen Sleuth, director Chris Kasick (Uncle Nick) explores the latter through his subject, 20-year-old True Crime podcaster Emily Nestor. Emily Nestor’s podcast “Mile Marker 181” covers a gruesome freak accident surrounding 20-year-old Jaleayah Davis whose body was found on I-77 in Parkersburg, West Virginia, at mile marker 181 (hence the podcast title). After hearing from the deceased’s mother that there may be foul play, Emily takes it upon herself to solve the “murder” of Jaleayah and bring justice to the deceased. Kasick’s film chronicles several years of Emily Nestor’s rise to fame in the true crime world, a slow, crushing fall, and breathing room for a possible redemption.


Emily Nestor in documentary CITIZEN SLEUTH. Photo courtesy of Wolf Kasteler Public Relations.

Emily Nestor, believe it or not, is the perfect “imperfect” spotlight for a documentary such as this. She’s spunky, funny, and true-crime-obsessed, even going so far as to be tatted with quotes from true crime figures (though she clarifies in the same scene that these quotes are not meant to glorify the figures…but she doesn’t really clarify WHY she has them either). Oh, and one of her favorite films is Silence of The Lambs, even memorizing Hannibal Lector’s “poor white trash” takedown of Clarice Sterling to a T. Yeah, she’s the perfect subject. But she’s also a subject that is a bit out of her depth or just refuses to notice what her depth (or limit) is. Before taking a dive into Emily’s character and history, Kasick puts the spotlight on some of her hometown’s citizens who have taken a liking to Emily and her podcast. Some of them even siding with her theory that Jaleayah’s friends could have been a part of what happened to her. This crosses a line into that exploitation space I was referring to earlier — not on Kasick’s part, but also on Nestor’s. There is a dangerous groupthink that can arise from persuading a small town to believe in an unproven theory. The more Emily investigates, the more her podcast blows up beyond her small town. As she puts on her amateur sleuth cap and interviews a few people about the freak accident, she comes close to realizing that the spotlight may be more than what she wished for. In a terrific scene, a conversation-turned-interrogation with a police officer is cut short when the officer ends the interview and verbally shames Emily for even suggesting there was foul play on the investigators’ part. On the outside looking in, you would think this chastisement is equal to guilt, but taking a step forward (rather than a step back), director Kasick clues us into the possibility that there may not be much of a “case” here in the first place.


Emily Nestor in documentary CITIZEN SLEUTH. Photo courtesy of Wolf Kasteler Public Relations.

Citizen Sleuth isn’t a takedown of the true crime phenomenon or fandom, it instead lets the audience decide whether this is a healthy space to work/exist within or not. There is an intriguing sequence where Emily attends CrimeCon, the “Comic-Con” for “true crimiphiles.” She attends a seminar by famed investigator Paul Holes, gives an interview about her fast-growing podcast, and exchanges contact information with Nancy Grace (hah!). “It’s hard to prove a murder when there isn’t one,” Emily says at one point during the film. When Kasick challenges her and asks her if that’s what she’s trying to accomplish, Emily gives a smirk and badly acts coy. Again, it’s not without tact that we should remember that this core subject is 20 years old at the time of filming. She still has a lot to learn and, arguably, some maturing to do. Sleuth does well in capturing the voices of the would-be antagonists as well, taking time towards the film’s climax to interview those whom Emily has all but accused of being the perpetrators of the ill-fated accident. Sleuth doesn’t carry along without empathy for its core subject either, taking time to show the realization that Emily has bitten off more than she can chew. She has taken too much time to craft a juicy tale of murder and revenge instead of taking the time to tell the unfiltered truth, which this film plainly does.

Chris Kasick & witness Brian Zickefoose (1)

L-R: Witness Brian Zickefoose and CITIZEN SLEUTH director Chris Kasick.

Citizen Sleuth is neither a perfect nor fresh take on “true crime obsession,” but it handles its subject competently and succinctly. It’s short-and-sweet 82-minutes prove that the film has no room for fluff and gets straight to the point of its interesting figure and her flawed manifestation of turning her obsession into a profession. Emily Nestor is no doubt a lesson of how crooked steps to success are always doomed to crumble before one reaches the top. Not everyone that cuts corners makes it to the finish line unscathed. Sleuth also shows there is something to be said for those who own up to their insincerity and try to make things right even when it may be too late.

Screened during SXSW 2023.

For more information, head to the official SXSW Citizen Sleuth webpage.

Final Score: 3 out of 5.

SXSW 2023

Categories: In Theaters, Reviews

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