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Movie Review

Sons of Perdition

Teens, and a film, in search of answers: Stories about polygamous families from boys who flee them in ‘Sons of Perdition’

Teen boys, including Sam and Joe, tell the filmmakers about their upbringing in “Sons of Perdition,’’ a documentary from Jennilyn Merton and Tyler Measom. Teen boys, including Sam and Joe, tell the filmmakers about their upbringing in “Sons of Perdition,’’ a documentary from Jennilyn Merton and Tyler Measom.
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / May 27, 2011

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One of the teens in “Sons of Perdition’’ sits on the sidewalk in a Utah subdivision and describes his father’s insistence that his mother — as well as his father’s other wives — continue to bear children even, basically, if it kills her. Notes of disgust and sadness creep into his voice. He’s sitting beside a friend from a similarly polygamous family, and one boy surmises that the situation is a kind of “modern slavery.’’

These might be smart kids, but they know they’re intellectually and socially undernourished. They’ve run away from their big, strange families in Colorado City, Ariz., and allegedly abusive fathers to seek enlightenment.

I can’t tell whether the filmmakers, Jennilyn Merton and Tyler Measom, think these boys (and eventually their even worse-off sisters) discovered much. Probably, the courage to get up and leave home was enough. They get high and drink and horse around in a way that’s like wild cubs on a nature show. They tell the filmmakers stories about their upbringing, all of which center around Warren Jeffs, the president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), who encouraged the men in his flock to reproduce, sometimes with their daughters. (At the time of filming, Jeffs was in prison for rape as an accomplice but is still pulling the strings in Colorado City.)

The directors try hard to cast a creepy pall over the movie with Jeffs’s sermons against popular culture and normal adolescent social exploration. They try to fashion a few thriller moments out of the escape attempts of siblings of exiled boys. They have all those scenes of frolic, with crunchy, folksy guitars playing on the soundtrack. Very little of it adds up to a movie. The runaways keep adding up, though. The movie spends two years watching these kids try to find their way, but it’s confusing keeping straight the names, faces, and stakes.

“Sons of Perdition’’ captures the scope of a crisis. It just never finds a real dramatic core or central idea. The movie seems paralyzed by having so many rich stories that happen to sound the same. It can’t focus on any particular one. Looking for insight, the movie turns to adult exiles who emote for the camera and advise. One man does so while house-painting and is prone to spelling things out for us, literally, on his walls.

It’s the girls who are most clearly devastated. In some cases, escaping means leaving their own children behind. They’re ambivalent about freedom. Flight for the boys seems less fraught. They want to meet girls who aren’t their sisters. Quite a few movies and news specials have also looked into the FLDS. This one feels like it’s fighting to distinguish itself from the others. The film is as searching and lost as the boys it’s following.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com or followed on Twitter: @wesley_morris.

SONS OF PERDITION

Directed by: Jennilyn Merton and Tyler Measom

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 86 minutes

Unrated (language and some scenes of drug use)

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