John Seven | Viewer's Discretion: Film, series probe abuse, manipulation

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'ABDUCTED IN PLAIN SIGHT' (NETFLIX)

Much has been made of this true-crime documentary in regard to the victim and her parents, with the idea that only stupidity on the part of Mary Ann and Bob Broberg could explain their gullibility in falling for the manipulations of sociopathic pedophile Robert Berchtold that led to his abduction of their daughter, Jan. But as the story unfolds, it portrays a reality that is so lost to us — and probably for the better — that it becomes impossible for many typical Netflix viewers to imagine such a world and mindset ever existed. It's not stupidity, it's faith.

Taking place in the 1970s, in the close-knit Mormon community of Pocatello, Iowa, "Abducted in Plain Sight" tells the story of how family friend and fellow churchgoer Robert Berchtold infiltrated the Brobergs' lives to a destructive and obsessive degree to the point of grooming, brainwashing, abducting and raping Jan Broberg repeatedly.

As if that's not hard enough to witness, the continual implication of Mary Anne and Bob in the nightmare makes it inarguable that the crimes could never have taken place and continued without their approval, and even help, unwitting though it was. Unfolding from one jaw-dropping incident or bad decision to another, the documentary is a worst-case scenario of horrible parenting that begs the question, How could this happen?

But the world portrayed in the film is a cloistered on, a naive one, a simple one, one built on a denial of a darker world, of trust being born from a series of checkmarks defined by the dominant culture and of shame in admitting your own sins, your own shortcomings and understanding that the worst sometimes happens. Asking these people to acknowledge, and clearly understand, the seedy, horrific, out-of-control situation they had found themselves in, and that they had power to do something about it, is about the same as asking a person who lives in the third dimension to enter and describe the fourth dimension.

It's easy for the audience to gasp in surprise at the downward spiral this family takes, but their All-American need to hand over what is most precious to them to a predator in the guise of a take-charge, dynamic personality is something typical to our culture. It's our faith to believe in such people. The fact that this documentary appears around the same time as the Michael Jackson one, which spells out his predatory pedophilia, is no accident. There are more stories like those out there than we'd ever care to admit, and that's the direct line between many in the audience and the Brobergs.

And, if you can see a little bit of your own failings in this film, have no fear, because even at most people's worst, it's not as disastrous as the Brobergs. It's a great primer for building a sensitive cautionary alarm in your brain, but also stands on its own for capturing the same kind of cancer eating away at the respectable suburban middle class at that time as David Lynch was busy portraying in fictional terms in movies like "Blue Velvet." There was something wrong, and this true-crime documentary reveals one of the very worst iterations of what it was.

'THE CRY' (SUNDANCE)

Rapidly spiralling from a bad situation to a worse one, the four-part-series "The Cry," adapted from the novel by Jacquelin Perske, shows the subtle side abuse and manipulation, the perceptually gray area that some people like to seize on as an area for debate.

Newly-married couple Joanna (Jenna Coleman) and Alaistar (Ewen Leslie) take a trip to Australia with their newborn son, in order for Alaistar to visit his daughter from his first marriage and also attempt to gain custody of her. At the start of the journey, a tragedy happens — the baby is snatched from their car — and the original plan shifts into an overpowering media circus covering the couple and their misfortune.

But "The Cry" doesn't tell a linear story. Instead, it jumps back and forth, crisscrossing through events in order to investigate the layers of what is going on here. Dimensions are revealed, each darker than the previous, and the story begins to investigate the ways that over-powering personalities can manage to seize control of a situation in such a way that manipulation seems like just another decision you made on your own. It's compelling in that way, but also for Coleman, whose fresh-faced innocence plays well to her character's unraveling and struggle for dignity and closure.

John Seven is a writer in North Adams who has never been satisfied by movies and television that are easy to come by. He likes to do some digging. Find him online at johnseven.me.


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