Not-So-Typical Family Outing

Perched on his single bed in a corner of his sparse white bedroom, David Friedman, balding, bespectacled, clad in a T-shirt and jockey shorts and radiating palpable heartbreak, addresses us from a crackly videotape dated Nov. 18, 1988: “This is private. So if you're not me, you're really not supposed to be watching this, because this is private between me and me.”

David tells us this early on in Capturing the Friedmans, and his words of course have exactly the opposite effect of what the poor guy intended; suddenly we sit up in our seats, intrigued, hungry to learn more about a sad, schlubby-looking guy we normally would have passed on the street without a second (or first) glance. Capturing the Friedmans uses home movie footage and talking-head interviews to tell the story of David's family, a Great Neck, New York, clan of complete and utter averageness, the kind of neighbors who stand out on a suburban block only by being perhaps a little funnier, a little smarter and a little closer than the family in the house next door. In short, the only immediately striking thing about them is that they seem to pull off averageness a little better than most of us do. And by the end, this portrait of this utterly average family becomes one of the most harrowing and tragic pictures you will ever see.

Capturing the Friedmans director Andrew Jarecki is the millionaire co-founder and CEO of Moviefone, and when he set out to make a documentary about New Yorkers who work as clowns at kids' birthday parties, the project was perhaps little more than a rich man's jolly lark. But then Jarecki met David Friedman, the most successful party clown in New York, and the film quickly became something very different. Jarecki learned that during the Friedman family's preparations for Thanksgiving dinner in 1987, police had shown up brandishing a search warrant. Arnold Friedman, a respected, retired teacher and head of the happy Friedman household, had been exchanging kiddie porn with other creeps through the mail. After the police investigated further, they accused both Arnold and his teenage son Jesse of having molested dozens of kids. The charges were astonishingly hideous. During a computer class that Arnold and Jesse had taught in the basement of the Friedman home, the pair had allegedly sodomized boys in full view of other kids; knives were allegedly wielded, blood was allegedly spilled. The charges tore the family apart, as you'd well imagine, and eventually both David and Jesse pleaded guilty. David would later die in prison of an apparent suicide while Jesse served out a 13-year sentence.

Opinions on this will surely vary, but I'm one of many who came away from the picture convinced that poor Jesse was almost certainly completely innocent of the charges, and David most likely was as well. Arnold did indeed have an unhealthy interest in underage boys, but as the film goes on the evidence mounts that the charges against him were most likely trumped up by a police force so overzealous for a bust that they strong-armed frightened kids into claiming they'd been abused. Jesse, meanwhile, was just a kid in the wrong family at the wrong time, an innocent bystander who lost 13 years of his life for helping his dad out with a computer class.

By all accounts the Friedman boys had a fun childhood, and in the home movies that they took as their lives were falling apart, we see how that sense of fun never completely deserted them even as it had every reason to; indeed, they seem at their closest immediately before David and Jesse are to go to jail. The night before David will go to prison for life, the Friedman men are joshing around with the camera in each other's faces, making dopey jokes like dad is headed for a routine hemorrhoid surgery in the morning, not lifetime incarceration for buggering little boys. The morning of Jesse's conviction, he and his brothers are outside the courtroom quoting Monty Python bits (“My brain hurts!”) and cracking wise like the nice Jewish boys they are. We want things to work out for these kids, and the wonderful, surprising thing about Capturing the Friedmans is that by the final reel, after decades of horror, there is a kind of happy ending, made all the more powerful for all that has preceded it. Whatever guilt we may have felt for ignoring David Friedman's stated wish in 1988 that we stay the hell out of his life, we are glad that his family has had its chance to have its story told, and we come away from it a few decades older and perhaps a bit wiser.

Capturing the Friedmans was directed by Andrew Jarecki; produced by Jarecki and Marc Smerling; and stars Arnold, Elaine, Jesse, David and Seth Friedman. Now playing at Edwards University, Irvine.

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