Of all the teenagers in American movies, the Amish young people in "Devil's Playground" have a story that takes hold of viewers' hearts and minds and won't let go.
"Playground" premiered at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival and will appear on Cinemax this spring. The 77-minute documentary brings us inside rumspringa, Pennsylvania Dutch for "running around": the rite of passage Amish kids abruptly embark on at age 16.
From one of the world's strictest Christian sects — higher education, motorized vehicles and anything else of the modern world from buttons to television, are forbidden — these teenagers are turned loose. Though many still live with their parents during rumspringer, they're free of Amish rules and go to parties where liquor and crystal methamphetamine are abundant; they can buy their own cars and cell phones and cable TV.
Then, months and sometimes years later, they make the choice: "To be or not to be Amish," as 18-year-old Faron Yoder puts it in "Playground." Rumspringa "is like a vaccination, a little dose of the outside world," Yoder said.
The Amish believe Christianity must be a free and conscious choice, which is possible only after one has grown into adolescence. This refusal to baptize their babies led to their widespread persecution in Germany and Switzerland, and the Amish began migrating to the United States in the mid-17th century.
Now more than 180,000 Old Order Amish live in this country, most in Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania. The densely populated communities' first language is a German dialect known as Pennsylvania Dutch, and members call all other Americans "english" for the language they speak.
Teens, naturally, want to find their places in the world as individuals. But since they also want to belong to a community, and because they love the parents who taught them Amish ways, rumspringa isn't carefree. It's turbulent, and the decision to return to the community, to be baptized, to marry and to live as the Amish did in the 17th century hangs in the air everywhere.
Documentarian Lucy Walker spent nearly three years among the Amish in Indiana, Missouri and Florida, filming people who didn't want to be filmed. But after months of attending hymn sings, hoedowns and community suppers, she and her handycam man, Daniel Kern, were allowed to record the teenagers on rumspringa and a very few of their elders.
"There is such grace in their lives," Walker said after her film's screening in Salt Lake City. "One magic hour, sitting on the porch drinking lemonade with an old Amish couple, I was moved to tears by the love and peace . . . of their lives, free from clutter."
Ninety percent of Amish teens return to their parents' community, forever renouncing "english" ways. They live their lives surrounded by their children; families of 12 aren't unusual. "You're never alone," says Emma Miller, a 17-year-old on rumspringa in the Sarasota, Fla., Amish community. "There's just a closeness."
One boy on rumspringa muses that Amish baptism binds the soul more deeply than any other rite. It means more than marriage, the teenager said. "You can take a ring off," but you cannot shed your Amishness. Daily life in an Amish household, added another boy, isn't necessarily quiet, even if it lacks television, radio and computers. "You can't watch TV, so you communicate more with your family," he said.
To the adults in "Playground," the outside world offers a clear path to evil, if teenagers choose to stay in it. Access to an automobile leads to access to liquor, and that leads to other drugs. Such indulgences and their consequences just aren't all that appealing to the Amish man who offers his brief viewpoint in the film.
Amish life is about work and humility, and young people are required to drop out of school after eighth grade. "They believe education leads to pride," said Walker. Many teenagers find jobs in factories, and by the time they enter rumspringa, they're making plenty of money while still living at home. The fact that most end rumspringa to return to a spartan, separate life demonstrates how strong is the pull of their community.
But most of the people in Walker's film are feeling their way along the outside edges. Velda Bontrager, like scores of her peers, hurled herself into the party scene when she turned 16. It felt wrong, however, and after suffering severe depression Velda prepared for her return to the church.
She made her own traditional black wedding dress — but four weeks before the wedding, she decided she "couldn't stay Amish." She wanted to go to college — and even though she hadn't been allowed to attend high school, Velda won a scholarship to a Christian college in Texas.
Velda harbored no resentment toward the Amish elders who, following church rules, shunned her. "They're showing that they love you," she said. "They're afraid for your soul."
Near the end of the film, Velda says, "It's very exciting to think that I have all these options" now.
Thus "Devil's Playground" is more than a peek into a series of teenage keg parties and joyrides. It's a complex tableau, a film that raised dozens of questions when Walker came the front of the theater after each Sundance screening.
"If you're going to have a good community, you have to give up some of that individuality," one Amish man said during the film. He summed up a struggle that is shared by us all, Amish and otherwise: finding the balance between the desire for independence and the need for connection to family, to community and to God.
"I just want to have a full life," said Yoder, the Amish boy whose rumspringer intensified his uncertainty about which path to follow. "I'm not english. I'm not Amish. I'm just me." Yet Yoder hasn't let go of his religious upbringing. He hinted that even if he spends the next many years figuring himself out, he hopes for some kind of reconciliation with his faith. "Jesus," he said, "didn't get baptized till he was 32."