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by Eric Kohn
April 27, 2010 3:19 AM
3 Comments
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TRIBECA REVIEW | Religious Rebels: "Sons of Perdition"

The Mormon outcasts at the center of "Sons of Perdition," a documentary directed by Tyler Meason and Jennilyn Merten, bring authenticity to a sensationalist hook. The polygamous community of the "Crick," a Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) enclave run by the dictatorial Warren Jeffs until his 2007 incarceration, drives relatively normal teenagers into self-imposed exile. Living on the outskirts of the Arizona town, these disillusioned characters come together in the hopes of finding a better life.

Freedom, however, serves as only one step in their maturation. Outside the Crick, they continue on their aimless trajectories - except now they can drink, banter and engage in other loose social behavior rather than suffer under the watchful eye of the FLDS's trenchant rules. As a result, they come across as both victims of religious extremism and accidental entertainment.

The movie's gimmick vaguely recalls the reality show "Amish in the City," while the polygamy backdrop invites comparisons to HBO's "Big Love." At the same time, the heavier theme of individual suppression puts the movie in the tradition of "Trembling Before G-d," Sandi DuBowski's portrait of closeted homosexuality in Orthodox Judaism. In "Perdition," most of the characters manage to escape their restrictions, providing the filmmakers with less accessibility issues than they surely would have encountered if the cameras actually ventured deeper into the community.

Reeling from the limitations of their youth, the subjects spend most of the movie mouthing off about it while displaying an interest in keeping the rest of their families in check. "To them, it would've been better for me to die rather than leave," says Sam, the oldest of ten siblings. His grave pronouncement echoes throughout the movie as the kids - many of whom crash at the home of millionaire activist Jeremy Johnson - struggle to undo the bonds with the world they left behind. However, the real tragedy belongs to the women of their makeshift group, whose horror stories about pre-teen marriage ("All Warren has to do is make a call and bam - they're married") explain the darkest forces at work under Jeffs's rulership.

Jeffs, meanwhile, remains a phantom figure whose voice on the soundtrack (culled from his own educational recordings) turns him into a de facto narrator. The movie lacks a single explanation for the way that any of the exiles managed to wake up from Jeffs's spell and search for better lives, but their valiant defiance has a remarkable purity to it. Rather than dismantling their faith intellectually, the youth convey a simple realization that the world exists beyond Colorado City. When they come across as resolutely average, it only enhances their need for escape, even under the guise of basic teen rebellion.

Guided by the Youth Crisis Center, the refugees find sanctuary from many sympathetic eyes, including, of course, the filmmakers' cameras. Their portrait of the exiles' transitional phase leaves many questions unanswered, but provides them with a voice to express their ongoing psychological trauma. One party sequence in which they run wild at Johnson's mansion initially resembles something out of "Jersey Shore," until the booze leads to tears and insurmountable memories of the Crick.

The drama, although at times quite powerful, begs for an explanation as to why the kids chose to turn away from Jeffs's community. Nevertheless, they possess a unique capacity to explain the problems plaguing their original homes. Unexpectedly spot-on nuggets of wisdom seep into their generally sloppy dialect. "This is modern day slavery," says one. "Family should be your religion," concludes another - which is to say, not dictated by it.

3 Comments

  • eric.kohn | April 28, 2010 2:23 AMReply

    @dharv They do touch upon this point, albeit briefly, but I was disappointed by the lack of attention given to the boys' animosity toward the community. It's easy to look at the way of life in the Crick and understand why it would be a crazy place to grow up, but I imagine it would look differently to someone raised in the place and poised to take even the more extreme aspects of it for granted. How did they come to see it in a new light? The movie never really explains that.

  • Stewart Nusbaumer | April 28, 2010 1:03 AMReply

    So, what is the solution to this modern day slavery? This is not discussed in the film, but was brought up at the press roundtable: education. A broader education than what the children now receive inside their cult. The States of Utah and Arizona need to demand their home education be genuine education. Right now all the children receive is preparation to live in a cult.

  • dharv | April 27, 2010 7:35 AMReply

    My understanding from seeing a prior documentary about Warren Jeff's community is that since men from the most favored families are allowed to marry as many women/young girls as they like, that polygamy for a select few leaves many less-favored young men without a permissible future. So they get kicked out of the community, ostensibly for minor infractions. That's why there are a lot of young male exiles, and hardly any female ones. It's too bad if this new documentary didn't clarify that point, as the reviewer suggests there's no explanation given for the boys' status.