A Friend of the Family review – the most jawdroppingly incredible true-crime story there is
Render it how you will – and so far the Broberg family’s history has been a memoir, a documentary and a podcast – their story remains one of the most jawdroppingly incredible in the history of true-crime tales. Now there is a dramatisation of it – A Friend of the Family (Peacock on Sky and Now) written by Nick Antosca and co-produced with two members of the clan: mother Mary Ann and daughter Jan. The latter appears pre-credits to introduce the endeavour, assuring us all of her blessing. It has an odd effect, possibly counter to the one intended, by implicitly acknowledging the voyeurism inherent in watching (another version of) her extraordinary, baffling story and giving us permission to indulge it. Nevertheless, it may well be that she starts a new trend and it will come to be de rigueur for any fictionalised account of a true story to get someone “real” to gloss it and those that don’t will come to look untrustworthy – even though logic would dictate otherwise.
A Friend of the Family unpacks how the entire Broberg family was groomed by neighbour, member of their church and sexual predator Bob Berchtold when he became obsessed with their young daughter Jan (played by Hendrix Yancey in her preteen years, McKenna Grace later). He kidnapped her – twice. The first time was in 1974. Berchtold held her for a month and convinced her through an elaborate setup that they had been abducted by aliens. “They” (a tape recording by Berchtold, played through speakers while a drugged Jan was tied to a bed in his mobile home) told her she was half-alien and had to procreate with a male companion of her choice to save the race and her family. It was a story she would believe for years. When they returned, the Brobergs maintained contact with Bob (the father feared a sex act between him and Berchtold would come to light, the mother had an affair with him) and two years later Berchtold kidnapped Jan again.
The memoir, podcast and especially the documentary – Abducted in Plain Sight, a 90-minute film by Skye Borgman released a few years ago – have given us the what and the malevolent why. The how, though, has been more elusive. In the wake of Borgman’s film, the Broberg parents came in for a huge amount of criticism for not protecting their daughter, for succumbing to Berchtold’s machinations, for exposing her to years of abuse and not, at the very, very least, cutting off all contact after the first kidnapping.
A Friend of the Family gives us the best sense yet of the how. Jake Lacy (continuing the seamless shift from all-American good guy roles to all-American monstrousness that he began in The White Lotus) as Berchtold hides his laser-like focus on Jan behind a mass of flirtatious charm, manipulative half-truths, and a browbeaten wife he can send out to defend him when things get tricky despite his careful calculations. And the sharp writing in plentiful scenes of Mary Ann (Anna Paquin) and father Bob (Colin Hanks) being caught in the webs he has woven, paralysed 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 could not. At the same time, it leaves space for judgments about how and when naivete shades into denial, and innocence into wilful ignorance.
Above all, however, it is a testimony to the relentless dedication of predators to achieve their own ends. How hard they work, how far they will go, how unswervingly they will pursue their agenda, smiling all the while. Whichever version of Jan’s story is told, this is the terrifying constant.
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