With Sons of Perdition, OWN is now 2 for 2 with its Documentary Club offerings. While the brilliant Becoming Chaz was a hard act to follow, first-time feature directors Tyler Measom and Jennilyn Merten deliver a film every bit as specific and captivating.
Sons, which premired Thursday, also is about transition — in this case, we follow teenagers Sam, Bruce and Joe as they acclimate to life outside of the walls of the polygamist Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints community of Colorado City, Utah, referred to as "The Crick." There's voyeuristic pleasure to be had watching these three boys feel their way around the world. The lyrics of "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" are news to Sam. When visiting a church, Bruce wonders aloud, "So Catholics believe in Jesus?" Joe doesn't know what comic books are when asked if he reads them (his explanation is that he's "not a good reader"). At one point, Joe also confuses Bill Clinton with Hitler.
And yet, you completely understand the source of their ignorance — the word "cult" is thrown around in reference to the fundamentalist LDS. In any event, these people grew up in an immensely sheltered culture. In the several Sons scenes in which we watch women attempt to escape from the community only to change their minds after a stern talking-to from the community's men, it's clear that there is mind-control going on. Because many of these attempted refugees are underage girls, a group which the church and its "prophet" Warren Jeffs has repeatedly been accused of sexually exploiting, these scenes are the most exciting and infuriating.
Taking refuge in St. George, Utah, with little more than the clothes on their backs, these kids pay the price of freedom. This is never more apparent than in a heartbreaking scene in which Sam meets with a potential adoptive family. The mother assures him, "You're not on trial or anything," before implying that he could do something to hurt her children, should he be left alone around them. (It's never verbalized, but it seems like she could be implying that possible past abuse could cause Sam to, in turn, abuse.) "Would you be OK if I was uncomfortable for a little while?" she asks him in a scene that suggests "God's chosen" in the LDS amounts to potential evildoer in the real world. Through no fault of his own, Sam is a suspected criminal.
Sons of Perdition's weakest points are its musical cues, which tend to fluff up already palpable emotion. When it isn't cloying, the score is redundant.
Still, Measom and Merten handle the touchy subject of religion with grace by examining the humanity that drives and is affected by it. Sons of Perdition is not preachy, just as its considerably disadvantaged subjects are not whiny. It handles Sam, Bruce and Joe as well as they handle their collective situation. That's not to say it's perfect, and that's of course what makes it human.