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Those Friedmans, they were ahead of their time. As shown in the jaw-dropping documentary that bears their name, the members of this embattled Great Neck, N.Y., clan laid claim more than a decade ago to several lifestyle quirks that would go on to practically define our era: pedophilia, household dissolution and the belief that everything that occurs in the real world cries out to be immortalized on film and/or video.
It's the family's own home movies we're watching as they weather the greatest crisis of their lives. Dad Arnold, a retired teacher and inveterate camera nerd, is charged with violently abusing a near-multitude of children who enrolled in a computer class he taught out of the family home. Youngest son Jesse is accused of assisting. As the pressure (some would say "hysteria") against them mounts, the family doesn't draw together but splinters in two. Jesse and his older brothers, David and Seth, rally around Arnold, but mother Elaine doesn't share their enthusiasm for his innocence. Her perceived betrayal of the family's solidarity earns the bitter enmity of her children. Much screaming ensues, and we experience it all in horrifying, recovered close-up.
Then again, Elaine has reason to be ambivalent: Arnold has already run afoul of the authorities for possessing child pornography. The depth of his feelings for young boys becomes a matter of controversy that persists to the present day. In interviews conducted with filmmaker Andrew Jarecki, family members, alleged victims and interested experts debate the validity of the charges that were leveled against father and son. And what they have to say casts new light on the ways in which we as a society perceive sexual predation.
None of the involved parties comes off as a white knight. Which of them strikes you, the audience member, as the most truthful source probably says more about your own innate presuppositions than it does about the facts of the case. "Capturing the Friedmans" keeps deliberately thwarting itself, setting up card houses of logic only to knock them down with damning countertestimony. The game is effective to the point of sadism: A deliberately timed revelation about Arnold's brother, Howard, may have a certain interest group crying demonization.
Though Jarecki displays a remarkable awareness of structure, only time will tell if he's a master filmmaker, or just a lucky son of a bitch who tripped over the most unbelievable storehouse of living-room dramatics ever committed to camera. It's harrowing enough to watch the Friedman boys mercilessly berating their mother for suggesting that their dad plead guilty to the unspeakable crime of child abuse -- you know, stuff every family goes through. But what's equally striking is that none of them appears to have entertained a second's worth of thought about possibly turning the camera off. There's a sickness at work here, all right, and it has nothing to do with sex.