Review of A Friend of the Family: the most unbelievable true-crime tale ever
Whatever way you choose to interpret it—the Broberg family’s history has been the subject of a memoir, a documentary, and a podcast—their tale continues to rank among the most astoundingly fantastic true-crime stories ever told.
There is now a dramatization of it called A Friend of the Family (Netflix), which was created by Nick Antosca and co-produced by two family members, daughter Jan and mother Mary Ann.
The latter makes an appearance before the credits to announce the project and assures us all of her support. It has an unusual effect that may be the opposite of what was intended by tacitly allowing us to indulge in the voyeurism that is inherent in seeing (another version of) her unique, perplexing story.
Even though logic would suggest otherwise, it’s possible that she sets a new trend in which getting someone “actual” to embellish any fictionalized retelling of a true tale would become required, making those who don’t appear unreliable.
A Friend of the Family explains how Bob Berchtold, a neighbor, and churchgoer who was a sexual predator, groomed the entire Broberg family when he developed an obsession with their young daughter Jan. (played by Hendrix Yancey in her preteen years, McKenna Grace later).
He twice kidnapped her. It happened initially in 1974. Berchtold kept her captive for a month while tricking her into believing they had been taken hostage by extraterrestrials.
She was informed that she was half-alien and that she needed to breed with a male partner of her choosing in order to save the race and her family by “They” (a cassette recording by Berchtold, played through speakers while a drugged Jan was bound to a bed in his mobile home).
She would continue to believe that for a long time. The Brobergs kept in touch with Bob after they got back (the mother had an affair with him, and the father was afraid that a sex deed between them would be discovered), and two years later Berchtold abducted Jan once more.
We now know what happened and the malicious reason why thanks to Skye Borgman’s documentary Abducted in Plain Sight, a 90-minute work that was released a few years ago. But the method has proven harder to pin down. Following the release of Borgman’s film, the Broberg parents faced harsh criticism for failing to shield their child, giving in to Berchtold’s manipulations, subjecting her to years of torture, and failing to at least cut off all contact after the first kidnapping.
The best explanation of how is provided by A Friend of the Family. Jake Lacy plays Berchtold, who conceals his laser-like focus on Jan behind a mass of flirtatious charm, deceitful half-truths, and a browbeaten wife he can send out to defend him when things get tricky despite his meticulous planning (continuing the seamless shift from all-American good guy roles to all-American monstrousness that he began in The White Lotus).
And the deft writing in many scenes of Mary Ann (Anna Paquin) and father Bob (Colin Hanks) getting caught in the webs he’s spun, paralyzed by social convention and embarrassment – and left helpless by their trusting natures – does bring to life what they must have gone through in a way that the documentary couldn’t.
It also gives room for judgments regarding how and when innocence turns into willful ignorance and naivete turns into denial.
But more than anything, it is a testament to how determined predators are to further their own objectives. How diligently they work, how far they will go, and how steadfastly they will pursue their goals while grinning. This is the scary constant in every telling of Jan’s tale.
Peacock and Netflix both have A Friend in the Family available.
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