The simple act of having one's hair cut or colored is fraught with meaning in "Sons of Perdition," an astonishing documentary about kids who attempt something that quietly, subtly feels almost science-fictional, like crossing over to a parallel universe. The stars of the film are teenagers who run away from their homes in the Hildale/Colorado City polygamous enclave on the Utah/Arizona border and struggle to forge a new life in nearby St. George, Utah.
Especially for the girls — but also for the boys — who blast across the boundary between dimensions, changing their hair is like signing the Declaration of Independence or crossing the Rubicon, a symbolic gesture of no return. It's also one of the only decisions or actions that seems to be easily within the grasp of the largely self-chosen exiles, who have grown up actively barred from gaining normal levels of socialization and education.
"Sons of Perdition" is an understated, largely observational documentary. It damns polygamy, and particularly excoriates Hildale/Colorado City overlord Warren Jeffs, but more by sifting through the collateral damage of Jeffs's tyranny, powerfully observed in the lives of the film's subjects, than by lining up talking heads or pie charts.
Jeffs, the imprisoned former president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, is heard at several key points in sermonizing soundbites drawn out of prophetic counsel given to his followers, and is actually harder on himself (albeit unintentionally) than almost anyone else in the film.
The kids are identified only by their first names and ages, and what we see of the drifting, largely directionless existence that waits for them beyond the realm of their childhood often makes it feel as though there's not very much more than that for them to fall back on. Most of our time is spent with Joe, Bruce and Sam, who make and discard various plans for their futures, each of which has obstacles and complications that would be daunting to almost anyone.
Because they are minors, for example, the kids need their parents' permission, in the form of signatures, to move forward in many areas. Because they are runaways, however, those same parents view them with fear or suspicion at best, and anger or condemnation at worst. Especially for the boys, leaving "The Crick" (as Hildale/Colorado City is nicknamed by its inhabitants), is a transgression that merits eternal damnation.
(The film's title is a reference to the final state of those deemed, in FLDS theology, to have sinned beyond any hope of redemption.)
There are good people in St. George who try to help, and all three boys make limited progress as the film unfolds. Some of their most ardent protectors, touchingly, are older runaways, usually relatives, who have worked out their own imperfect means of functioning in mainstream society.
Because directors Tyler Measom and Jennilyn Merten stick mostly to the viewpoint of the runaways, "Sons of Perdition" has a handful of blind corners, areas where we wish we understood more of the bigger picture. There's a stunning revelation, at one point, of the amount of illegal drugs that the kids apparently have access to and use heavily, but the film doesn't push much deeper into that dark corner of their lives than to show that it exists.
Interestingly, for all that we identify with the boys and grow to worry about their uncertain futures, the film's greatest emotional impact lies in its depiction of two female runaways. One is Joe's 14-year-old sister, Hillary, who envies her brother's freedom and may or may not be able to follow him — I became so concerned for her that waiting to learn the outcome of her multiple escape attempts was like watching a good thriller.
I won't reveal anything about the other girl, except to say that she's a (very) young mother and that the emotionally confused aftermath of her impulsive departure is a jaw-dropper.
"Sons of Perdition" doesn't purport to solve any of the dilemmas it uncovers. Frankly, letting people know these kids are out there, is probably the best thing that the filmmakers could do for them. We're shown at a couple of points how little the runaways understand about the world outside of The Crick. Most of the people in that world would likely return the favor by knowing next to nothing about these real-life lost boys (and girls).
Maybe this film can change that.