Those unfamiliar with the inner workings of the Amish people — and that would be most of us, I think; if you’re Amish and you’re reading this on the Internet, you’re in BIG TROUBLE — will find “Devil’s Playground” an utterly fascinating documentary. For it examines a very unusual aspect of the faith, wherein 16-year-olds are allowed out into the world to get a taste of earthly pleasures before forever committing themselves to the Amish way of life. Some of those teens don’t come back.
Director Lucy Walker follows several youth from LaGrange County, Ind., as they experience “rumspringa” (literally, “running around”). The central focus is on Faron, who at 18 has been rumspringing for two years and shows no signs of stopping: When the film opens, he is well on his way to becoming a crank dealer in order to support his crank habit. Surprisingly, he says he still plans to renounce the world, be baptized, and live an Amish life. He’s just not sure how many wild oats he needs to sow before that occurs.
The other figures are Gerald, who says he won’t join and who rarely wears a shirt, apparently; Velda, who suffers from depression; and Joann, who is unsure what her plans are but who still dresses in Amish garb even while participating in non-Amish activities. (This is not uncommon for girls, we learn — one of many interesting revelations in this film.)
“Devil’s Playground” benefits from its novelty. We’ve never seen a documentary on this subject before, so it’s new to us. But Walker shows some storytelling skill, too, wisely paying the most attention to Faron: The film suffers when it focuses on the others, none of whom is anywhere near as compelling as this guy. Over the course of the film, he becomes a fully developed person. More than just a misguided drug dealer, he’s a likable young man with a faith that is actually rather inspiring. You root for him.
According to the onscreen statistics, 90 percent of Amish youth do wind up returning to the faith, even after tasting hedonism. What it is that brings them back is a question Walker hardly addresses, but the individual stories give some anecdotal evidence that is deeply thought-provoking.
B+ (; )