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Sons of Perdition
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by Jay Seaver

"Anger, compassion, and excitement in one documentary."
4 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2011: Most of the time, when the modern westerner encounters or hears of polygamy, it's an individual case, and thus he or she thinks about the individual psychology involved. Make it more commonplace, though, and a numbers issue emerges: A potential surplus of young men. In a polygamist community in the American southwest, this excess is cast out (or at least, men who leave are not pursued nearly as much as women), considered "sons of perdition", and the film of the same name is a fascinating look at these exiles' struggles.

The exiles come from the town of Colorado City, Arizona, a town populated by Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints, a Mormon splinter group under the leader ship of Warren Jeffs. Jeffs - called "The Prophet" - is a second generation cult leader who controls the town absolutely. When girls reach child-bearing age, they are given to the men Jeffs selects; fall out of favor, and your wives and children may be distributed to someone else (and, since you'll no longer need such a big house, you'll likely be ordered to move, as well). Extra boys who are not among the chosen elite are either dropped outside town or allowed to run. Many end up in St. George, Utah. The filmmakers spend most of their time with three: 17-year-old Sam, his 15-year-old cousin Bruce, and 17-year old Joe.

Generally speaking, documentaries come in two main flavors - fly-on-the-wall and interview/archive-driven. Directors Tyler Measom and Jennilyn Merten mostly favor the former, following the boys around as they experience and try to find a place in the outside world. There are basic bits of information to fill the audience in on, though, and it's delivered in a couple of interesting ways. We get an idea of what sort of indoctrination the members of the FLDS receive by listening to clips of Jeffs, and it's remarkably, unnervingly seductive - the delivery is clear and simple with consistent logic that almost makes sense from a certain starting position; it does a good job of short-circuiting any contempt the audience might feel for the majority of the FLDSers. Outside of that, the information seldom seems spoon-fed; only a former FLDS social worker really seems to be a straightforward interview. The rest come from the boys and the people they meet, the information seeming to come out as asides as the subjects go about their business.

It's when the audience is watching things happen that this movie really shines. The boys are remarkably open and unguarded, willing to wear their hearts on their sleeves and let the audience see them uncertain, confused, and maybe not making the best decisions. It's not just about being confessional, though - Sons of Perdition is often genuinely thrilling. The film opens with one of several risky trips back into Colorado City which have a sense of danger to them, as do the scenes where their family members attempt to escape (and when husbands and fathers come to bring them back...). And when one of the women does escape without her own child, we're not given lectures or justifications, just a close, unflinching look at a situation where "mixed emotions" doesn't begin to cover the situation.

Those who feel distance and objectivity are the most important virtues a journalist or documentarian can display will find them in short supply here - Measom and Merten don't just follow their subjects around, but drive the car (and, per the festival Q&A, hid runaways). Granted, it's not as if there's another side that deserves equal time (seriously, screw Warren Jeffs), but there are ­times when it seems that their fondness for the kids has them back off from true low points.

That's an almost unavoidable, of course - this is, after all, a story that comes from something the filmmakers felt strongly about even before their minds caught up with their hearts. Our thanks to them, then, for making a movie that runs the full gamut of these feelings - angry, compassionate, and even exciting. Having all three in the same movie is a rare feet, and they're seldom as well balanced as they are here.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=20450&reviewer=371
originally posted: 05/25/11 14:15:38
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Tribeca Film Festival For more in the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Silverdocs Documentary Festival For more in the 2010 Silverdocs Documentary Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Austin Film Festival For more in the 2010 Austin Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Independent Film Festival Boston 2011 For more in the Independent Film Festival Boston 2011 series, click here.

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Directed by
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  Tyler Measom

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