A Missing Friend, Never Forgotten
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
In August 1976, a 10-year-old boy named Andy Puglisi disappeared after an afternoon of play at a public pool in Lawrence, Mass., and was never seen again. Melanie Perkins, a slightly younger neighbor who had also been out swimming that day, grew up to become a documentary filmmaker and, in 1998, she set out to determine what might have happened to her friend.
The story of her search, as recounted in Perkins's first full-length film, "Have You Seen Andy?," will be presented tonight on Cinemax. As might have been surmised, her conclusion, after more than eight years of investigation, is both grim and simple: Andy was probably murdered before anybody knew he was missing. And yet the film holds one's rapt attention throughout its 79 minutes -- as a distinguished contribution to the true-crime genre, as an evolving portrait of a tightly knit working-class community over the span of 30 years, and as the loving testament of a woman who never allowed herself to forget her ill-fated playmate.
There were no Amber Alerts in the 1970s, no pictures of missing children on milk cartons, and there was precious little communication between police departments from town to town, let alone state to state. I remember joining the futile search for a young girl who disappeared from her Tolland, Conn., neighborhood, five miles from where I grew up, in the summer of 1973. The concern for her fate, while intense, was distinctly local, and there was nothing at all along the lines of the national attention that would now be drawn immediately to such a case. As Ernie Allen, the president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, observes in the film: "This was a nation of 50 states that acted like 50 separate countries and 17,000 different police departments."
Perkins also interviewed Andy's mother, father and one of his brothers; several past and present police officers in the Lawrence area; and a man who says he has clear memories of the abduction, but whose testimony was treated as insignificant because he was 4 years old at the time. She makes deft use of documentary footage (a so-called psychic joined the search in the 1980s, garnered a few headlines and some television coverage for himself, and then absconded with some irreplaceable evidentiary material). One of the most moving scenes is set at a reunion party for those who grew up in the neighborhood, where nostalgia and long-standing affection between old friends is shadowed by memories of the loss they shared.
Although Andy Puglisi's body has never been found, a viewer concludes "Have You Seen Andy?" with the sense that Perkins has pretty much figured out what happened to him. There are some ghastly confiscated tape recordings of her principal suspect -- Wayne W. Chapman, a convicted pedophile with a history of rapes in Lawrence -- fantasizing aloud to himself as he follows a school bus. Some silent home movies are equally haunting, as long-ago children squint and grin into the lens of Chapman's camera with guileless curiosity and confidence, and we worry for their safety.
"Have You Seen Andy?" has nothing in common with the sleazy prurience that characterizes such programs as "To Catch a Predator," which entices creeps for the sake of television ratings. Rather, this is a dignified and straightforward exploration of distant tragedy, and all the more excruciating for its plain-spokenness.
Have You Seen Andy? (79 minutes) airs tonight at 7 and June 24 at 6:30 a.m. on Cinemax.