Grade: A

Andrew Jarecki’s debut feature is a documentary, but in its own quiet, unobtrusive way it’s also one of the most frightening films ever made. “Capturing the Friedmans” is terrifying in a number of respects. It portrays the disintegration of an American family in a fashion that would have done Eugene O’Neill proud. It deals with accusations of child molestation, surely one of the most unsettling of crimes. And it depicts the darker realities of the American legal system in a particularly acute way. (On a side issue, it also tangentially concerns birthday clowns, which some certainly consider an object of horror.) The most unnerving thing about the picture, however, is how skillfully it demonstrates the slippery, shifting nature of truth. By telling a horrendous story without finding it possible to reach a definitive conclusion, it shows us how weak and fallible our own powers of perception are. That may be its most troubling quality of all.

Jarecki, we’re told, didn’t set out to make this film at all; his original notion was to do a conventional documentary on New York City’s birthday clowns, and as part of the process he interviewed David Friedman, the “dean” among them. He eventually learned, however, that David was the eldest son of Arnold Friedman, a Great Neck computer teacher (and confessed pedophile) who’d been caught in possession of child pornography and ultimately pleaded guilty to multiple molestation of his young pupils in 1988. Making the story even more awful, his youngest son Jesse, then eighteen, was implicated, and ultimately jailed, as well. Jarecki became fascinated with the case, not in a sensationalistic way, as if it might serve as the basis for an episode of “American Justice,” but as a way of investigating the meaning of family. Of course, if he’d been limited to the ordinary techniques of documentary filmmaking–contemporary interviews, still photos, TV footage, newspaper headlines, and the like–he might have wound up with something very like an A&E product. But though he made use of all those elements–there are interviews with all the surviving family members save middle son Seth (who chose not to be involved), representatives of both defense and prosecution legal teams, and former students of Friedman (some of whom claimed to have been molested, others not) as well as their parents–Jarecki had something else that gives his film an immediacy and visceral power virtually all other such treatments of horrific family situations lack: an incredibly revealing trove of home movies and video footage made by the Friedmans themselves, not only before their ordeal (Arnold had been recording the family’s apparently blissful life for years), but during and after it as well. David made this material available (even a video diary in which his younger self virtually anathematizes anyone but him who might dare to look at it), and the excerpts included here make for haunting viewing. What’s most unnerving about the footage is that it allows us to experience, as mute witnesses, the collapse of the Friedman family, as wife Elaine comes to be seen by her sons as unsupportive of her husband and of their effort to encourage him (and Jesse) to fight the charges. The anger which erupted within the home and the desperate efforts of the family to maintain its identity under the pressure of legal action and public scrutiny (and hostility) are depicted with harrowing authenticity. And when the film moves into the details of the judicial process, the manipulation and chicanery on all sides become frightening as well. (The Friedmans discuss strategy and characterize their lawyer’s actions differently than he does; the police and prosecutors admit an utter lack of physical evidence, and questions naturally arise about the means used to interrogate the children who took a computer course in the Friedmans’ basement, with some supposedly repressed memories released only under hypnosis–a procedure now known to be problematic.)

By the time “Capturing the Friedmans” reaches its end, you’ll feel that the film has revealed more about the members of this unhappy, tormented family than most documentaries ever manage to tell us about their subjects; and yet you’ll have to admit that you really don’t know them at all. Ultimately what Jarecki’s film shows is that however hard we might try, we can never fully penetrate either the mysteries peculiar to this case or the universal questions about human nature that they raise–what drove Arnold Friedman, an honored teacher and ostensibly perfect father and husband, and on a more basic level even what he (or Jesse) did; how and why the community reacted as it did to the allegations against them; whether a family can survive such an experience; whether a society can handle such situations justly. Like the best works of art–fiction or non-fiction–it leads us to think about ourselves rather than simply tell us something about somebody else, and it forces us to remember that human matters are never as simple as we’d like and that answers to questions about them are always difficult to come by. Some viewers will doubtlessly find the film’s subject distasteful or feel frustration that its close is so ambiguous–there is definitely no sense of closure here. But as Terence said, nothing human is foreign to us; and though one hopes our histories are rather different from the Friedmans’, this sensitive but even-handed record of their tragedy tells us something about ourselves, too–even if some of us might rather not hear it. It’s a profoundly disturbing film, but a brilliant one as well.

A final note: If anybody ever needs somebody to play Kevin Spacey’s younger brother, they ought to check out Jesse Friedman. In the interview sequences here, there’s a striking resemblance.