TANGENT What we like: 'Devil's Playground'
By Kim Harwell
WHAT IT IS: Lucy Walker's 2002 documentary gives the public a rare glimpse into the closed world of the Amish.
WHAT IT'S ALL ABOUT: If you've been sucked in to UPN's new fish-out-of-water reality show "Amish in the City," you're familiar with the Amish tradition of rumspringa. From the Pennsylvania Dutch word for "running around," rumspringa is a period of self-discovery given to Amish young people beginning at the age of 16 and lasting until they decide to formally join the church (or reject the Amish way of life altogether). During rumspringa, Amish teenagers can indulge in normally verboten behaviors -- driving cars, drinking alcohol, listening to music, watching TV.
WHY WE LIKE IT: As most of us remember all too well from our own high-school days, just because you're living under Mommy and Daddy's roof doesn't mean you're not doing things that would make the old folks' hair stand on end. And as is ably demonstrated in "Devil's Playground," Amish kids know how to party. The documentary is noteworthy not just for its unprecedented access (Walker takes her camera into Amish homes, Amish farms and, in one memorable scene, an all-Amish bacchanal that would make Courtney Love green with envy), but also for the evenhanded way that it studiously avoids demonizing any of the participants -- not the gentle church elders and their adherence to a patriarchal, anachronistic way of life; not the depressed twentysomething who was shunned by her family and community for abandoning the church shortly before her wedding; not even the drug-dealing preacher's son who becomes the movie's de facto star.
When we first meet Faron Yoder, the chatty, likable teen seems like any suburban youth blowing off some steam. He wears baggy jeans, T-shirts and a baseball cap. He goes bowling with his buddies and his pretty, pierced girlfriend. He smokes cigarettes and drinks too much beer. But soon the facade cracks, and we see Faron for the conflicted young man that he is: He feels a deep commitment to his Amish faith ("It's a really good religion," he says earnestly) and seems certain that one day he will settle down with a nice Amish girl and join the church. At the same time, he can't seem to break the shackles of a $100-a-day methamphetamine habit.
Not all of the Amish youth in "Devil's Playground" are as out of control as Faron, though most of the ones pictured are an indisputably rowdy lot. As the DVD's commentary track makes clear, most of the more conservative teens would refuse to participate in the film because of the Amish ban on being photographed. But in portraying this almost unknown coming-of-age tradition in such an unflinching, unsparing way, director Walker exposes this hidden subset of religious fundamentalism in a way more shocking -- and less exploitative -- than anything the suits at the UPN could ever dream up.