There’s a haunting image in director Andrew Jarecki’s heartbreaking new documentary “Capturing the Friedmans.” On a jumpy black and white film, a tiny girl spins around endlessly in a ballerina costume, happy and completely innocent, totally unaware that her own young life will soon end abruptly.

J. Brady McCollough

Those few fleeting frames of a sister lost to blood poisoning began the complicated, more often than not tragic relationship of Arnold Friedman’s family with film / pictures.

Arnold, a respected teacher in Great Neck on Long Island, compulsively recorded the lives of his wife Elaine, a more neurotic Jean Stapleton type, and his three dorky, but good natured sons David, Seth and Jesse with pictures and home movies. His sons inherited the habit. “Capturing” is packed with Super 8s of birthdays, holidays vacations spent at the beach where the family stares back at the audience with the same unwitting smile as the dancing girl.

Ironically later TV news coverage and videos of screaming matches would take over as the primary testaments of the family. Even as the Friedmans enter an unbearable stretch of years which would see all their lives crumble, they kept their cameras rolling. These private clips alone would make for an interesting doc, but combined with their public downfall, the film reaches the heights of classic tragedy.

Jarecki’s film is about the transformation of the Friedmans from an eccentric but loving suburbanite clan to bitterly divided, twistedly embattled outcasts and living tabloid fodder. The dark catalyst for this ground-shaking change was a hidden stash of child pornography the secretly disturbed Arnold kept hidden from the world. When federal postal agents raided and confiscated his collection, local authorities immediately began questioning former and current students, searching for evidence that Friedman might have physically acted on his fascination, possibly with members of the computer class he taught out of the family’s basement.

Hysteria swept through the tight-knit, posh community and soon heavy, unbelievable charges of sodomy and rape are filed, not only against Arnold, but also his youngest son, Jesse. While often leaving room for viewers to draw their own conclusions, Jarecki quietly sides with the family, noting that Arnold’s sick pedophilic impulses don’t inherently make him a violent rapist, especially not without any physical evidence.

The drama and heart-wrenching twists of their trials could fuel dozens of “Law and Orders,” but while “Capturing” is intrinsically focused on these court room and police dealings, especially allegations of botched, overly aggressive interviews of Friedman’s students, Jarecki can’t help but keep his film locked on the internal conflicts of the family and the lasting scars the case left on their psyches.

Brother David and mother Elaine’s interviews are the bulk of the film, perhaps because they are truly the kind of rich, complicated characters a screenwriter could only dream of conjuring. David, now a New York City-based birthday clown, bitterly rants about the police’s hardline tactics, his unwavering admiration and belief in his father and his boiling anger towards his mother.

Elaine somehow became a focal point for her sons’ rage, perhaps because she never fully believed her husband was wholly innocent or because she was never the warm parent Arnold was for the boys. Her eventual divorce of Arnold seems much more of a painful point for David than his father’s undeniable addiction to child pornography, which David refuses to fully acknowledge.

Jarecki directs the film with breathtaking subtlety, balance and surprising suspense. He leads the audience through the Friedmans’ sad tale with a careful pace, delicately avoiding screaming sensationalism and pathos, put still snapping a compelling photo.

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