When does a true crime documentary cross the line between telling a story, and exploiting it? “Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey” unintentionally raises that question throughout its four-episode run despite being a well-made, comprehensive, and expansive look at the polygamist group of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The trauma created by the FLDS on its members was systemic, far reaching, and unfathomably insidious. This documentary approaches its talking heads with empathy, but it becomes uncomfortable itself when this series about child brides feels like it’s simply dumping their trauma onto viewers, letting them sift through these various horror stories rather than providing much illumination.
“Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey” tells the kind of saga one wants to forget immediately after hearing it. Warren Jeffs, the self-professed prophet of the FLDS, orchestrated countless marriages for his believers, while dangling the promise of eternal life in front of them. (When Jeffs’ father Rulon died, leaving behind dozens of widows, Warren married some of them.) From birth to adulthood, his followers were instilled with fear of not following his latest message from God, which more or less focused on multiplying and a woman’s submission. Everyone was to serve the community, and that included the multiple girls, some as young as 12, and women forced into polygamous “marriages.” They were told to be subservient to their husbands and create large families. And because polygamy and child brides are illegal in America, Jeffs had to move around his people from secretive compounds in Utah and then Texas, tearing families apart when he kicked members out. Jeffs is a monster, and the documentary relies too often on making you stare at his portrait while listening to audio of him speak, for a horror movie’s effect.
Across four parts, the series shows the origins of this group, the flawed efforts by media and police to help the people more or less trapped in it, and the ways that Jeffs’ eventual incarceration is far from an ending. The final episode packs a lot in and ends abruptly. There are stories of liberation shared by former members of FLDS, but they come and go quickly. And the documentary wields one of its most disturbing audio pieces, involving the abuse of a child, for the end, pushing the production closer to feeling simply shocking. If it were not included, the doc would not have suffered from it.
In a bigger picture, “Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey” looks at the FLDS as a potent microcosm of unchecked tyrannical patriarchy, one that emphasizes power and control through gender roles while working with the greatest method to sway someone, belief. The doc does not make this connection outright, or try to analyze a lot of it within its chronological recounting of how the church became so powerful and densely populated. But it’s a context that gives it enough significance, and undoubtedly motivated director Rachel Dretzin as to what this story ultimately means.
A wealth of former FLDS members paint a disturbing picture of the church’s way of life; talking head interviews help us more or less understand the groupthink brainwashing that used to make sense of this way of life, their experiences then sometimes recreated with grainy film reenactments. We hear from one of Warren Jeffs’ brothers, (of the 30-plus brothers Jeffs has), and the husbands who participated in polygamy and now sit in armchairs with one of their wives. The series’ heroes are undoubtedly the courageous women like Elissa, Rebecca, Alison, and Ruby among others, who helped speak out against the church, after experiencing their own devastating realizations about what was actually happening to them at such young ages. As one person says, words like “rape” were not even in their vocabulary, even though that was what they were experiencing.
It’s all horrifying, sickening, monstrously traumatic stuff. And “Keep Sweet” repeats that trifecta of feelings throughout, all with a story that isn’t about some elaborate scheme, but the upholding of so many institutions and ideologies, put to their extremes. And that trifecta is also what makes the series seem limited in having a specific purpose; it’s the main, constant takeaway even when it details something new, like a cryptic video about how women have to ornately braid their hair, or watching children sing some type of hymn that touts the idea of “keep sweet” (a skin-crawling motto from Warren’s father Rulon for his followers and line of wives).
The tone of the series, its most intricate feature, helps show that this saga has a more complicated presence of light than just the complete darkness of such horror. Within the stories of Jeffs’ insidious acts, the series also instills a sense of loving bonds between parents and their children, or of romantic relationships that started in parallel to other relationships of abuse and statutory rape. Some people truly found love, even though the community, and the children, were always being manipulated by whatever Jeffs wanted. It adds a more challenging air to its never-before-seen photos and home videos, where the many smiling faces and pastel dresses of young FLDS girls are never not ominous and cultish. But you believe that in those moments, the promise of salvation filled their souls and made sense of everything else.
A lot of true crime documentaries can show their true colors with their intentions, and that’s certainly not a question here. The more powerful parts of “Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey” give space to the survivors to share their experiences, offering a public catharsis to previously anonymous heroes. There’s a noble effort here in collecting their stories. But because it traffics so heavily in trauma from start to finish, often involving child sexual abuse, treating this saga mostly as a shocking play-by-play with a reptilian boogeyman at the center feels a little cheap. Something about “Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey” just doesn’t sit quite right.
Now playing on Netflix.
Nick Allen is the Senior Editor at RogerEbert.com and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.
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