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Devil's Playground (2002)

Directed by Lucy Walker

"Rumspringa" is an Amish version of spring break and Mardi Gras rolled into one, only the duration is left up to the teenage revelers, somewhere between months and years. If you're like me, your knowledge of Amish culture can be summed up by the movie "Witness". Evidently, there's much more complexity to their lives than a picture-postcard of quaint Pennsylvanian Dutch farmers dressing up in Smith Brother cough drops fashion or riding around in horse-drawn buggies. "The Devil's Playground" is a documentary chronicling the experiences of a group of Amish teenagers as they experiment with "English" (American) culture and try to decide whether or not to be baptized and become full members of the Amish church. During this time, these young men and women can experience all the freedoms and vices that the modern world has to offer.

A good deal of the documentary revolves around a sixteen year old kid named Faron. He's the son of an Amish preacher and hopes to one day marry a beautiful Amish girl, get baptized, and become a preacher himself. There's a problem, though. He's hooked on crystal meth and his life has become a crazy rollercoaster of ups and downs. Faron is a very open, good kid... well, as good as someone who's become hooked and starts dealing meth can possibly be. Maybe, likeable is a more accurate description. At one point he confesses that of all the mistakes he's made the worst is that he's gotten so many other kids hooked.

The Devil's Playground

Just when it looks like he's totally lost, Faron returns to his parent's home and gets cleaned up. He begins working for his father making lawn furniture and meets a young woman. Emma is also on "rumspringa" and becomes as infatuated with Faron as he is with her. Faron is a good looking guy and Emma is absolutely beautiful, a cross between Phoebe Cates and that girl from "The Wonder Years". They are a very charismatic couple. At this point, there is yet another in a long line of eye opening moments. Young couples like Faron and Emma are allowed to engage in an Amish custom called "bundling". Simply put, the couple is allowed to sleep together in the girl's bed. It's a given that they are going to experiment a little, but they are not supposed to have intercourse. However, the Amish are surprisingly pragmatic. It would shock no one if a pregnancy results. If so, the couple would be expected to marry and join the Amish church. In short, this custom is a custom because the Amish church is the ultimate winner by gaining not just two but three new members. Everything that happens during this period of "rumspringa" is forgiven and forgotten when the kids join the church and return to a pious, Christian lifestyle.

Another good chunk of the documentary follows a young woman named Velda. Reluctantly, Velda decides to return to the church and gets married. After she's baptized she has a change of heart, and leaves. Here again, knowledge of "Witness" is helpful. Velda is "shunned". Her family and friends refuse to have anything to do with her. They won't look at or talk to her. It's a living death. Without any support from them, she has to make her own way in the world. It's heartbreaking to listen to Velda describe her life as looking up with her eyes glassy with tears. You will feel invested in her struggle to carve out a future.

The Devil's Playground

The filmmakers of "The Devil's Playground" took a very difficult subject and came through with a fascinating look at an almost invisible culture in America. The Amish are not supposed to allow themselves to be photographed because it promotes the sin of pride. The filmmakers had to convince these young people to participate even though their knowledge of movies was very limited. With that in mind, what would the word "documentary" mean to you if you had never seen a movie or television show until the age of sixteen? Be that as it may, teenagers are teenagers. One girl, who has decided to return to the church, mournfully confesses that what she's going to miss most is Ozzfest and Godsmack.

Director Lucy Walker and producer Steven Cantor have opened a window into a world that has all the joys, sorrows and humanity of our own. As these young people are tempted by our culture of individuality and choice, you might might find yourself being tempted by theirs -- a world of simplicity, family and belonging. You will gain a more balanced appreciation of both the strengths and shortcomings of a small, persecuted religious sect that has made a home for itself in the American landscape. The way that the Amish deal with their wayward youths is unexpected, strange and totally amazing. What a great documentary! -- Rating: $9.50

Tom Graney -- copyright 2003 Hollywood Outsider

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