Andrew Jarecki's Capturing the Friedmans is a damning portrait, to varying degrees, of almost all of its characters. The film is both An American Family writ large (and much uglier) and a story of what may have been a horrific case of sexual abuse.
Did Arnold Friedman and his son Jesse in fact molest the boys who attended computer classes in the Friedmans' basement? Jarecki won't (and perhaps can't, because of his lack of certainty) say. But his exhaustive presentation of both sides of the story is both painful to watch and immensely compelling.
What to think of the judge who presided over Arnold and Jesse's case, and who declares in the film, "There was never a doubt in my mind about their guilt" (referring, disturbingly, to her thoughts before the case even began)? Or of the sex crimes unit detective with the Great Neck police department whose methods of questioning the possible victims in the case can be described as leading at best?
Jarecki leaves no room to question Arnold's guilt as a pedophile--he was indeed convicted of possession of child pornography, admitted in an affidavit to having molested the son of a friend (and perhaps another boy as well), and, according to Jesse's lawyer, may indeed have molested his youngest son for years. But Jarecki leaves room for the doubts that came up in the case--did Arnold and Jesse actually commit the acts for which they were both sent to prison?
As brilliant as the even-handed presentation of the two sides of the case is the director's decision to allow the Friedmans' home movies to serve as the centerpiece of the film. It's these glimpses into the family's lives that complicate the case even further.
Jarecki could easily have created a film that listed strongly to one side, with occasional glimpses of the opposite pole, but he chose instead to make something much richer and more interesting: a chronicle of one family's dysfunction, one community's scandal and outrage, and the one breed of crime that may be every parent's largest and most unwieldy fears.