(This review was originally broadcast on Morning Edition and is reproduced here with National Public Radio's permission, by Bob Edwards.)
They live in a strict society, under tight control of their family and close-knit community. But when they turn 16, Amish teenagers are allowed the freedom to explore the customs of the outside “English” world—including alcohol, drugs and sex—before deciding whether to join the Amish church for life or leave the community altogether.
This tumultuous period, which the Amish call rumspringa—the Pennsylvania Dutch word for “running around”—is the focus of Devil’s Playground, a documentary by filmmaker Lucy Walker, which premiered recently on Cinemax.
“They can go to the mall, they can stay out all weekend long. There’s no curfew,” Walker says. “Their parents are going to turn a blind eye to all kinds of stuff.”
In making her documentary, Walker says she was shocked to find hundreds of teens from Amish settlements in ten states congregating in “barn hops” and “hoedowns.”
“They all come together and there will be three fields filled with cars and horse and buggies ... and these barns crammed with very drunk teenagers.”
One of the teens in Devil’s Playground is 16-year-old Gerald of Indiana, who moves out of his parents’ house to a trailer that Walker describes as “party headquarters.”
“I didn’t tell my parents for like a month,” he says in the film. “They just kept wondering where I was off to and what I was doing...if I was living at home, I couldn’t have 200 channels of DirecTV, a stereo and Nintendo and a fridge full of beer.”
Velda, another subject of the film, suffered from depression as she went through rumspringa. Her parents convinced her to join the church but she changed her mind when she realized that “being Amish was actually her problem,” Walker says.
And then there’s Faron, an 18-year-old with an escalating drug habit who idolizes the late rapper Tupac Shakur—an unlikely hero for a boy who says he hopes to follow his father into the Amish ministry.
“Sometimes I kind of wish I would have gone Amish when I wanted to,” Faron says. “I’d have it easy back there. I’d have a place to live, I’d have a nice job. That’s what I was raised to be. I feel like nothing can change that because that’s God’s plan... My mom really wants me to come back into our church. I told her I might someday, and I might not....”
And despite the freedom to experiment, Walker is amazed that eighty-five to ninety percent of the teens do decide to return to the Amish ways and join the church.