Movie Reviews
9:06 am
Wed June 25, 2003

Capturing the Friedmans

Andrew Jarecki's "Capturing the Friedmans" is as real as hidden family dysfunction could be on film.


Forget TV reality shows: Andrew Jarecki's "Capturing the Friedmans" is as real as hidden family dysfunction could be on film. Out of a seemingly-normal Great Neck, N.Y., middle-class family comes a tale too unique to be discounted: Honored teacher father and boyish son are charged with molesting young boys who attended dad's after-school computer class. It's known that dad reads child pornography, but the questionable molesting becomes a crisis fulcrum for the entire film.

"Friedman's" is unique for 2 reasons: 1. Better than almost all other documentaries, even "Paradise Lost," it reveals the ambiguity and uncertainty in most litigation. 2. It uses copious home movies to reveal the major characters at play and rest without helping to determine guilt or innocence.

Jarecki, a co-founder of the Internet site, Moviefone, has admitted that after all the hours of interviews and miles of footage, he is not certain about the guilt of the father and son. Even the homemade family film, filled with slapstick and confession, is either so disingenuously crafted by another son to create the uncertainty or so naive as to be believable.

With that ambiguity, ironies abound: Award-winning teacher Arnold has a sleazy secret life centering around the very students he is guiding; Arnold's ex-wife is so remote from this male-dominated family that she may not have had a clue, yet her reunion with Jesse after his prison term is amazingly joyful and honest; son Jesse disclaims helping dad with the molestations yet confesses in the end, he says, because the law and the town are stacked against him.

Most fascinating to me, an amateur chronicler of my own family, is the Friedman's (and by inference, America's) obsession with documentation. The night before dad goes to prison is videotaped; the night before Jesse's incarceration, brother David records him in various poses, most of them loose and sometimes laced with self-deprecation.

Jesse is videotaped outside the courthouse the day of his confession dancing a jig and generally goofing. Is this nervous energy, an act to neutralize a fear of imprisonment or an egregious act meant to outrage the judge and jury? Ambiguity rules here.

David, the narrator brother, leads his life as Silly Billy, the most sought after birthday clown in new York. The irony is rich.

I don't know if I can ever believe what I see again. I do know I will more carefully watch every documentary from this day forward. This one unambiguously deserved the 2003 Sundance grand jury prize.