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Movie review: Law and disorder: Riveting documentary details family's breakdown

Leo Tolstoy knew families. "All happy families resemble one another," he wrote. "Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Exhibit A is the Friedman family of Long Island, N.Y. The Friedmans faced trials most families don't, but to watch t...

Leo Tolstoy knew families.

"All happy families resemble one another," he wrote. "Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Exhibit A is the Friedman family of Long Island, N.Y. The Friedmans faced trials most families don't, but to watch them self-destruct in the face of their travails is a nearly shattering experience.

That's what happens in "Capturing the Friedmans," which might be the single best theatrical documentary ever made.

The story breaks down into two halves. Arnold and Elaine Friedman are a middle-class New York family with three children -- David, Seth and Jesse. Arnold is a schoolteacher who teaches computer classes out of his home on the side.

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The family's downfall begins when Postal Service officials discover Arnold is getting child pornography through the mail. After they share that information with local police, Arnold is accused of sodomizing students in his computer class. The youngest son, Jesse, also is accused. They are arrested in a Thanksgiving Day raid.

Around the time of their arrests, David, the oldest son, buys a video camera. He turns the camera on the family, documenting discussions about the allegations -- and documenting the family's not-so-gradual disintegration. Much of the film's second half uses those videotapes to tell that part of the story.

Using interviews, television news footage, old home movies and David's tapes, director Andrew Jarecki has fashioned a complex, textured story that works on multiple levels. It's about the justice system, but it's also about people who get caught up in it and those who try to pull them free.

It's about the sins of the father and about guilt and innocence. It's about family bonds, both how strong and fragile they can be.

And at bottom, it's about ambiguity. Jarecki doesn't provide any ultimate answers. Two people can watch "Capturing the Friedmans" together and come to diametrically opposed opinions about Arnold's and Jesse's guilt. But the film also shows how guilt and innocence can be irrelevant in the end. Sometimes, the film shows, there is only destruction and law does not always provide order.

The heaviness of its subject means "Capturing the Friedmans" can be difficult to watch. In fact, even if yours is one of those happy families, the film will strike a nerve. You can't watch the Friedmans' family arguments without recalling times when your own family members wounded each other, even if in matters less dramatic than accusations of a terrible crime.

But as difficult as it can be, "Capturing the Friedmans" does something almost miraculous. It tells a complete story in minute detail, but leaves plenty of room for thought. It's a film that takes work to watch, but it's rewarding work.

And it will stick with you, long after TV courtroom dramas that find "truth" in an hour have faded from memory.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Tom Pantera at (701) 241-5541

"Capturing the Friedmans"

Fargo Theatre

Not rated

107 minutes

Four out of four stars

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