Losing their religion
"Sons of Perdition" looks at 'Lost Boys' in southern Utah
On a sunburned patch of desert that straddles the border of Utah and Arizona lies a community of huge homes and imposing fences called Colorado City and Hillsdale. To those who live there, itís known as The Crick.

There, in the shadow of red-rock bluffs, a large sect of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints practices its religion, an all-encompassing doctrine dictated by the incarcerated but powerful prophet Warren Jeffs. In this carefully controlled compound, men have many wives, boys leave school to work for tithing money, girls are married young and families are the center of everything.

In 2003, Jeffs launched an effort to cleanse his flock, banning recreation and gentile books, forcing out male members for reasons as small as watching a movie with an apostate. What followed was an exodus of hundreds of teenage boys ó some forced and some willing ó to neighboring towns like St. George, Utah.

These boys who left the religion ó be it to go to college, meet girls or just to taste the world outside of the insulated town ó are considered "sons of perdition," and are damned to hell, says the prophet. Many are cut off completely from their families, and are left to fend for themselves, lacking education or sometimes even a home, in a new and alien world.

"Sons of Perdition," a heartbreaking movie by Jennilyn Merten and Tyler Measom, follows three exiled boys in the aftermath of their departure from The Crick.

The movie chronicles their journey as they deal with the loss of their religion, the intoxicating taste of freedom, the hopes of the future and the cruel obstacles of life outside of The Crick.

Itís the story of a culture few really understand; yet it is threaded with universal themes of religion, identity and family.

Filmmakers Merten and Measom grew up in the mainstream Mormon Church, and both made the painful decision to leave the church when they were in their 20s. So when they heard about exiled FLDS boys in 2005, they recognized a compelling story.

"We just knew that there was a bigger story. It was kind of our own story, writ large. Something that could deal with the process of leaving your religion," Merten said.

So they traveled to St. George, and started knocking on the doors of social workers. Turns out, there was an extended network, "almost like an underground railroad," of exiled teens living together or in group homes or work programs there.

But it wasnít easy to break into; FLDS kids are raised to believe that outsiders, and particularly the media, are wicked. Merten and Meason were cussed at and rejected.

The pairís knowledge of Mormon scripture and shared history helped them gain access, though, and they slowly gained the trust of Sam, Bruce and Joe, the main subjects of the film.

"They kind of adopted us," Merten said.

The boys represent three versions of the exiled. Sam, 17, is a charming boy who is deeply troubled that he has lost ties to his brothers and sisters. Bruce, 15, is goofy and affable, but still hurt that his mom and dad were broken up by Jeffs. And Joe, 17, is a thick-skinned kid whose dreams of going to high school are eclipsed by a desire to help his mother and sister escape The Crick. (Unlike boys, girls are hunted down if they leave).

The film follows the boys as they try to find footing in a new world and go to high school, but also as they drink in their new freedom ó dying their hair, partying with girls, experimenting with drugs and alcohol.

The boys are at times naÔve and callous, but also show an older-than-their age weariness.

"The kids are wise beyond their years in many ways," Measom said.

They struggle with the church, but, remarkably, never assign blame to their families.

"I donít think religion should ever come between family," says 17-year-old Sam. "Family should be your religion."

The filmmakers say what began loosely as the story of leaving a religion turned into much more.

"Itís a cross between fish out of water and coming of age. Making that leap for freedom, that leap for who you are. Losing your religion, and leaving your family and your religion," Merten said.

At the same time, itís an exposť of the rigid control Jeffs holds over the community. He owns the property, collects money from the people, and dictates the smallest details of life. And for the people, betraying him is like betraying god.

That creates an atmosphere where leaving is a tremendous decision in the lives of FLDS members, one that changes the fabric of life forever. But for the kids of "Sons of Perdition," the courage to leave has led to opportunity, enlightenment and promise.
Originally published Thursday, May 27, 2010