Five years after this documentary was released, its topic of concern--the Amish tradition of letting their kids run wild while they decide whether or not to enter the church--has become a staple of lazy writers on primetime dramas. ER and Law and Order, among others, have both featured rumspringa episodes. Typically, these shows use the Amish angle as a big reveal: those kids can't get their parent's permission for an operation, because they've been shunned! (Dun-dun-DUNNNN! cries the dramatic chipmunk from the back of the audience.)
But if memory serves correctly, television writers exploiting this dramatic device rarely allow the religious tendencies to overwhelm the feel-good resolution of their storyline, either because they believe that people couldn't possibly be so terrible or because there's an unspoken prohibition to hinting that radical religious sects really might just be a little crazy. And the Amish kids depicted, as far as I remember, are usually good citizens who have just landed in a tight spot.
What's noteworthy about The Devil's Playground is that it not only inspired these depictions, but that its takeaway message is so far from those heartwarming moments. If there is a subtle way to point out that the Amish are, in some ways, terribly cruel and manipulative of their children in the interest of "religious freedom," Devil's Playground does so, simply by laying out their actions in a dispassionate--even distant--light.
The filmmakers follow a set of Amish youth who, during this traditional ritual, are no longer required to behave according to the dictates of Amish society. So they can own and drive cars, watch TV, drink, and dance, and their parents do little more than register disapproval of this behavior. Unsurprisingly, like the kid you knew in college who was raised a strict Christian and suddenly let free, the Amish kids go completely overboard. One of them, Faron, is even a meth dealer--one that snitches on a couple of other Amish drug dealers to the local police, earning death threats and social ostracism. I never thought I would write the words "Amish drug dealers" except as a joke, but there you go. The police, it must be said, wearily see the Amish teenagers as trouble.
In theory, the Amish say, this period of teenage rebellion is meant to be a taste of the outside world, so that the kids can make a free decision whether or not to go into the church and remove themselves from the wider world. In practice, The Devil's Playground shows a religious culture that stacks the deck against these kids before they can make that choice. Not only are they tossed with little preparation into an exaggeration of normal life, but (one teenager points out) they're forced to stop schooling in the 8th grade, meaning that they would have no real chance of getting a decent job or going to college. They've got no future in anything other than service-industry or manufacturing jobs. What choice do they really have? Is it any wonder that only 10 percent break free?
I always thought of the Amish as cute, bearded people who make chairs and crafts and raise barns for fun. And granted, they're not violent or overtly ill-disposed. But between their regressive sexual politics and this hazing-like parenting ritual, The Devil's Playground presents a picture that's not nearly so adorable. It does so simply and without any malice towards its subjects--I'm sure the Amish who watch it would feel that they're treated fairly--but it's not flattering. And to some extent, it raises the question of what people should be able to excuse with religion. In any other context, when kids are deprived of their education and then abandoned to their own devices to choose between the horns of a dilemma, would we just let it happen?