What awaits the wide-eyed teenage boys who escape — or are spurned from — Warren Jeffs’s polygamist settlement in Colorado City, Ariz., except for the previously forbidden trappings of youth? They go right to baggy jeans, tattoos, cheap beer, dyeing their hair a bright canary yellow and gelling it up into fauxhawks. It’s as if they busted out of the 19th century only to land smack in the middle of a Warped Tour haze of temptation and bad taste.
As seen in the fascinating and sad documentary “Sons of Perdition,” which will air Thursday night on OWN, three young men run away from the strict and abusive lifestyle in “the Crick” (the communal nickname for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints compound) and quickly discover how ill-equipped they are to survive.
In the real world — or in a world of Western suburbia — they must rely on a network of slightly older exiles who fled the compound and moved to St. George, a town across the Utah state line. Without Social Security numbers, the boys sleep on floors and in shelters; their best hope is to sometimes find temporary work in construction and try to earn their GEDs.
There is patchwork help from social service programs, such as Job Corps, but high school is foreign territory that quickly exposes not only their lack of social skills but also the vast gaps in the religious-centric dogma that formed early education in the Crick. One of the subjects of “Sons of Perdition” can draw mutant monsters but has never heard of or seen a comic book. One young woman, who also escaped the Crick, is surprised to learn Washington is the nation’s capital. Another confuses Bill Clinton with Adolf Hitler.
Filmmakers Tyler Measom and Jennilyn Merten followed their subjects for four years in the late 2000s, the very same period in which FLDS leader Jeffs was arrested and convicted on accomplice-to-rape charges for marrying off underage girls to men in his community.
By focusing on the travails of three boys — Bruce, Joe and Sam — the film artfully keeps the sensational aspects of the West’s polygamy standoffs and other news in the background. Measom and Merten are former members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (which has officially distanced itself from the FLDS), but this is not an exploration of religious beliefs. At heart, “Sons of Perdition” is a difficult but absorbing study of emotional abandonment. It’s hard to watch as Sam halfheartedly makes his case to potential foster parents, who warily question him about his past and want to know what he hopes to do with his future. (Sam decides not to pursue adoption; in the next scene, he’s smoking pot with other boys.)
In one of its more touching scenes, we see Bruce, 16, who is living at a shelter for wayward polygamist teens, riffling through his CD case to find, among the heavy metal, a recording of children’s hymns from his boyhood days. As the children sing their obedient devotion to Jeffs and the FLDS principle, Bruce softly sings along, thinking of all he’s left behind.
All three boys have emerged into a land of confusion, convinced that they must live out their days in a permanent state of sin and damnation. Therefore, its easy for these “lost boys” (perdition can be a pretty harsh epithet in the Mormonized West) to fall into drug and booze habits.
Rather than sinfulness, loneliness seems to be the harshest side effect. Much of “Sons of Perdition” focuses on the drama that ensues as 17-year-old Joe attempts to help his mother, 14-year-old sister and younger siblings escape his father’s house.
In a happier interlude, Measom and Merten chronicle the boys’ time spent living in the home of a wealthy entrepreneur and his wife, who try their best to get them on a path of work and education. The situation deteriorates as the boys take advantage of the generosity and goof off. With sincere sadness, the family asks them to leave when all three boys test positive for marijuana, methamphetamine and other drugs.
“Sons of Perdition” was originally released last year and has made the rounds on the festival circuit (including Silverdocs last summer), where it has been warmly received. The boys themselves — now possessing somewhat sunnier postscripts to their continued lives outside Colorado City — have appeared at festivals to answer questions and promote programs that help exiles from the Crick and other sects.
The Oprah Winfrey Network picked up the broadcast rights and is showing “Sons of Perdition” as the second installment of its monthly “documentary club” feature — an encouraging choice for the fledgling network, which still has too many shows about celebrities. The film is a good fit for OWN, which, at its best moments, continues to emphasize programming that examines society’s margins, especially concerning life’s two biggies: faith and/or sexuality.
“Sons of Perdition” has a lot of the first and a bit of the second, dealing as it does with both polygamy and three boys roiling with hormones who are set loose in a sexualized society. But in its willingness to closely follow its subjects’ shiftless nature for several years, it too can meander. At certain points, the film feels too loosely edited and lacking in narrative theme.
Yet this quality also works to the film’s benefit. The freedom we experience through Sam, Bruce and Joe is at once exhilarating and terrifying. Like the sons of perdition themselves, “Sons of Perdition” has little idea of what comes next.
(two hours) airs Thursday at 9 p.m. on OWN.