It's not uncommon for a documentary to pack more dramatic oomph than most fiction features, but even within that standard, Capturing the Friedmans is an extraordinary film; it may be the most haunting documentary since ''Crumb.'' At first, we think we're watching the story of a suburban monster. Arnold Friedman, a mousy, mild, 56-year-old computer teacher in Great Neck, Long Island, is visited by police in 1987 after he receives a package of pornography -- it features preadolescent boys -- in the mail. The film's ominous tone implies that this is the tip of an iceberg, and indeed it is, as the local sex-crimes unit goes on to accuse Friedman of molesting and raping dozens of boys in the computer class he teaches at home.
Before long, witnesses come forward, and Arnold's 18-year-old son, Jesse -- the youngest of three -- is accused along with his father. The saga of depravity escalates into a self-perpetuating media sensation. But did any of these crimes actually occur? Many who saw ''Capturing the Friedmans'' at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival found it to be a kind of ''Rashomon'' gone de Sade. Yet as the ''evidence'' in the case is presented (physical evidence? There never was any) and the prejudices of the authorities are laid bare, the film makes an overwhelming case that Arnold Friedman and his son, like others of the Reagan era, were victims of sexual hysteria.
The witch-hunt aspect of ''Capturing the Friedmans'' only feeds the fire of the film's real ambiguity. Arnold Friedman may not have been guilty of the crimes with which he was tarred, but he was guilty in his heart for being a suburban dad with pedophiliac desires. The Friedmans were pathological camcorder enthusiasts, and Andrew Jarecki, the film's director, brilliantly employs their home-movie footage to create a disarming study of a middle-class Jewish family as fractious in its closeness as Alex Portnoy's and as scalded by hidden psychic wounds as the clan in ''Long Day's Journey Into Night.'' ''Capturing the Friedmans'' is gripping, lacerating, moving, and tragic -- a work of documentary art.