A real-life counterpart to HBO’s Big Love, Sons of Perdition details the efforts of three teenagers to craft new lives after leaving the “Crick,” a Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) community lorded over by Warren Jeffs on the Utah-Arizona border. The boys in question, Joe, Bruce, and Sam, choose to leave the Crick to escape tyrannical polygamist fathers and a repressive, isolationist culture that demands blind obedience under threat of physical abuse and eternal damnation in the afterlife. Directors Tyler Measom and Jennilyn Merten follow them for three years after their departure, and in doing so capture a piercing, humanistic portrait of individuality struggling to be born, and to survive, amid not only present-day difficulties but inescapable past traumas. Despite working with subject matter prone to be treated with freak-show melodramatics (as somewhat confirmed by HBO’s serialized drama), the documentarians never resort to cheap theatrics and tsk-tsk moralizing, instead allowing the boys to articulate—both verbally and through their actions—the arduousness of the path upon which they’ve embarked, all while conveying the terrifying ethos of Jeffs’s compound existence via voiceover sermons from the “prophet” that position him as an ominous, ever-present brainwashing specter in Crick exiles’ lives.
Distraught over abandoning their multiple-mom, 20-odd-sibling clans, as well as over the knowledge that their exit might lead to reprisals from Jeffs against their loved ones, Joe, Bruce, and Sam find themselves adrift. Without a home, a support network, or any knowledge of the outside world (Joe’s sister admits she doesn’t know the country’s capitol, and Joe honestly confuses Bill Clinton with Hitler), the kids are forced to rely on the kindness of strangers (namely, a wealthy altruist named Jeremy Johnson) and the construction skills they were taught at an early age by the FLDS cult. Nonetheless, even as Joe repeatedly struggles to extricate first his mother and then two of his sisters from his father’s domineering control, Measom and Merten’s film makes plain that the true enemy resides within. Though the boys are clearly shown to have had it easier than their female FLDS counterparts, whose wholesale powerlessness and subservience involved complying with arranged underage marriage and rape, Sons of Perdition nonetheless captures, in its subjects’ discussions of their prior lives and their current difficulties adjusting to new realities, the way in which despotic indoctrination and denial of knowledge and thought neutered them as autonomous creatures.
Measom and Merten aren’t afraid to pose the occasional question to the boys, but the filmmakers’ arguments aren’t made overtly but rather via the accumulation of anecdotes about life in and out of the Click, and supporting-evidence montages of FLDS husbands and fathers posing for photos with their wives, sister-wives, and enormous broods. A few more outside perspectives would have helped flesh out the organizational and psychological forces at play in places like the Crick, especially from seldom-heard interviewees like Under the Banner of Heaven author Jon Krakauer. Still, Sons of Perdition’s concentration on Joe, Bruce, and Sam—and, to a lesser extent, their exiled compatriots—is a shrewd one, allowing for a focused examination of the toll wrought by such an upbringing on teens undergoing the process of self-definition. Less a definitive historical account of American polygamy than a study of a very particular strain of post-traumatic stress disorder, Measom and Merten’s doc is cautiously inspiring in its snapshot of independence blossoming amidst oppression, heartbreaking in its empathetic portrayal of lost young men permanently scarred by their elders, and infuriating in its clear-sighted depiction of the criminal and emotional horrors perpetrated in the service of religious psychosis.
Sons of Perdition will play on April 23, 24, 25, and 27 as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. For more information click here.