Review: Documentary Duo Shift to Episodic Format for Riveting, Drama-Packed Love Fraud

The documentary-making duo Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady have consistently delivered some of the most intriguing and thought-provoking films on American life, politics and culture. From 2006’s Jesus Camp, about children attending an evangelical summer camp to 2012’s Detropia, about the collapse of the manufacturing economy in Detroit, to 2017’s One of Us, about Hasidic Jews who chose to leave their insular communities, their films uncover experiences, stories and revelations that are rarely shared between friends, let alone documented on film. (Full disclosure, I worked with Ewing and Grady briefly on the theatrical release of 2016’s Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You.)

Love Fraud
Image courtesy of Showtime

The duo is always working on something (there’s already an “Untitled Ewing/Grady Project” in their respective IMDb credits); recently Ewing shifted gears slightly to earn critical acclaim for I Carry You With Me, her first narrative feature film. Their latest documentary project together marks yet more new ground, this time a limited series premiering on Showtime. Love Fraud is a four-episode deep dive into the crimes and deception of Richard Scott Smith, a man with many aliases, many backstories and many wives, each conned into running up enormous debt, severing ties with their family and ultimately left picking up the pieces after their Prince Charming turned out to be anything but.

Our collective fascination with true-crime stories is nothing new, though often it can feel like all the “good” stories in that genre have been told. Murder, espionage, abuse…it all gets tiresome after too long, and especially now, it’s harder than ever to justify reveling in someone else’s suffering or tragedy. Which makes it a rare treat when a story so dramatic, so full of twists and turns, and populated by characters so endlessly engaging comes along, all ushered into a captivating series crafted by this hugely capable duo. Love Fraud is a journey, the first episode much like stepping onto a path for which you don’t have the map; it sets up much of the circumstances of Smith’s fraud, the women he victimized and, most notably, the weathered and no-nonsense bounty hunter they enlist to track the jerk down. As the first episode ends, it’s as if Ewing and Grady are out there just ahead somewhere, promising the story is only just beginning. It’s not until the fourth and final episode ends that one realizes what they’ve been doing all along, sending us down a winding, weaving trail for a destination so stunning and unbelievable that it’s worth every step along the way.

The best part of Love Fraud—which, though it ostensibly centers on Smith, is actually the story of the women who’ve had enough and set out to hold him accountable for his lies—is the way Ewing and Grady choose to unravel the story, slowly piecing together the evidence, introducing more and more women caught in Smith’s spell, and sometimes even inserting themselves into the investigation as they are just off screen watching the latest developments unfold in real time. We meet several of the women duped by Smith, each at a point in their lives where, for one reason or another, his slick charm and fast talking are just the right combination to get them to fall for him. None of them are dumb in the slightest; their biggest flaw is—clichéd but true—just wanting to be loved, and Smith seems to promise it all. As the lies pile up, each of the women realize individually what a con man Smith is; with the help of a website one of his exes built to warn other women about his antics, they find each other and, like some women-scorned Avengers squad, join forces to take him down.

Leading the charge is Carla, a bounty hunter whose years of taking no bullshit (and smoking) are visible on her face, a visage that’s usually scowling except for the moments she’s cracking wry about how much she loves the down and dirty work she does. By the third episode, the way Carla and the women have banded together to share resources, knowledge and their stories of heartbreak and lies is something akin to a support group. They look out for each other like sisters, some of the women going so far as to get in touch with women they believe are currently dating Smith just to warn them off of their budding relationships that are sure to turn sour. By the mini-series’s last episode, what started as something fairly interesting but not entirely special has evolved into something so riveting it’s to our great benefit Ewing and Grady chose to give the story some 200 minutes to unfold rather than the paltry 90 or less of a feature film.

Much of Love Fraud feels familiar in ways that work in its favor; the filmmakers rely on their audience’s familiarity with the true-crime genre to truly appreciate the narrative journey they send us on. There’s cat-fishing and internet investigations. There’s closed-circuit video footage and stake-outs. There are moments it seems like the whole pursuit may fall apart, and moments it’s impossible not to cheer on the women resolved to not take it any more, dammit. But the series’ most incredible moments come at its end, as Ewing and Grady make one very particular narrative decision that confirms the entire series is worth the investment of your time. For a story so focused on the women victimized by his lies, it’s not until the very final moments of the series that Smith finally gets a say; it’s a sequence that proves as gripping as the final moments of another essential in the true-crime documentary series genre, The Jinx.

At this point in their combined careers, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady have established themselves as filmmaking collaborators who not only understand what makes for an intriguing story but know how to craft it for maximum effect. With this foray into a multi-episodic format, they prove the extra time isn’t just for indulgence’s sake; they skillfully use the structure to draw an audience in, create connections to their subjects and ensure every moment of drama gets its due.

The first episode is now streaming free online; the full series will stream on Showtime.

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Lisa Trifone
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