Published Jan 01, 2006At first glance, the Friedmans looked like a normal, happy, well-adjusted middleclass family from Great Neck, Long Island. Arnold, the nebbish father, loved to take home movies and we see him and his sons, David, Seth and Jesse, all goofing around and mugging for the camera like they were in a Marx Brothers movie (mother Elaine was more humourless and certainly more camera shy). It all looks like the opening credits of The Wonder Years until the interviews with the family members begin to tell us the story of Thanksgiving, 1987, when the police raided their home and found Arnold's large, well-hidden stash of kiddie porn. This spurred the local sex crimes unit to interview the boys in Arnold's computer class, which then led to the arrest of Arnold and his 18-year-old son, Jesse, on numerous sexual abuse charges.
But what's really remarkable is that over the ensuing years, as the family was being eviscerated by these charges, they kept the camera rolling. Capturing the Friedmans shows us everything dinner table arguments in which Elaine seriously doubts her husband's innocence (the boys all pounce on her for being a traitor); David's venomous "video diary," in which he rants against the police and seems to be coming unglued in front of our eyes; and Jesse's oddly buoyant comedy improv in front of the courthouse, right before his verdict is to be announced.
Director Andrew Jarecki keeps parcelling out the shocking revelations, and as the story becomes more dense and complex, the film goes from being a documentary about this family and this criminal case to being a kind of contemporary Rashomon that questions the nature of objective truth and asks us if we can ever truly know the mind of another person even those closest to us. This film packs one hell of an aftermath in your mind. The answers to the questions it raises remain doggedly ambiguous right up to its final frames.
I've gone back and forth about what really happened in those basement computer classes numerous times in my head a futile exercise but the film demands it of its audience. Capturing the Friedmans will turn you into an armchair psychoanalyst and a human lie detector. It takes a sad, sordid story and, resisting the lure of voyeurism, elevates itself to the level of a fascinating, ineffable work of art. (Alliance Atlantis)