Keep Sweet Review: When does a true-crime documentary go beyond conveying a narrative and into exploiting it? Despite being a well-made, comprehensive, and extended look at the polygamist group of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, “Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey” unwittingly highlights that topic throughout its four-episode duration.
The FLDS inflicted systemic, far-reaching, and unfathomably insidious suffering on its adherents. This documentary shows empathy for its interviewees, but it becomes uneasy when the series on child brides feels like it’s simply dumping their grief on viewers, leaving them to sort through the numerous horror stories without much guidance.
Keep Sweet Review
“Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey” is the kind of story that you want to forget as soon as you hear it. Warren Jeffs, the FLDS’ self-proclaimed prophet, staged innumerable marriages for his followers while holding out the promise of eternal life. (When Jeffs’ father Rulon died, he left behind a slew of widows, some of whom Warren married.)
His followers were brainwashed with a fear of not obeying his current message from God, which was more or less focused on multiplying and a woman’s subordination, from birth to adulthood. Everyone, including the many girls, some as young as 12, and women forced into polygamous “marriages,” was expected to serve the community. They were told that they should be submissive to their husbands and have many families.
Because polygamy and child brides are prohibited in the United States, Jeffs had to move his followers from hidden sites in Utah to Texas, breaking families apart as he forced individuals out. Jeffs is a monster, and the documentary overuses the horror film technique of letting you stare at his portrait while listening to audio of him speak.
The series is divided into four parts and depicts the origins of the group, as well as the faulty efforts by the media and police to assist the people who are more or less trapped within it, and the manner in which Jeffs’ eventual incarceration is far from over. The final episode is densely packed with information and ends abruptly. Former FLDS members have told experiences of emancipation, but they come and go fast.
And, for the finale, the documentary uses one of its most terrible audio segments, involving child abuse, bringing the production closer to being just shocking. The doc would not have suffered if it had not been included.
In a broader sense, “Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey” examines the FLDS as a potent microcosm of unbridled totalitarian patriarchy, one that prioritizes power and control through gender roles while relying on the most powerful tool of all, belief, to sway people. The documentary does not establish this connection explicitly, nor does it attempt to explore much of it within its chronological account of how the church grew to be so strong and populous. But it’s a backdrop that lends it considerable weight, and it surely inspired filmmaker Rachel Dretzin to think about what this story means in the end.
Former FLDS members present a horrific image of the church’s way of life; talking head interviews help us better grasp the groupthink brainwashing that used to make sense of the church’s way of life, and their experiences are often reenacted via grainy film reenactments. We hear from one of Warren Jeffs’ siblings (one of his 30-plus brothers), as well as polygamous men who now sit in armchairs with one of their wives.
The series’ heroines are undeniably the brave women like Elissa, Rebecca, Alicia, and Ruby, among others, who helped speak out against the church after coming to their own sad realizations about what was happening to them at such a young age. Even though they were experiencing rape, terms like “rape” were not even in their language, according to one person.
Everything is terrible, nauseating, and monstrously traumatic. And “Keep Sweet” maintains that trifecta of emotions throughout, all while telling a story that isn’t about some intricate conspiracy, but about the upholding of many institutions and ideas that have been pushed to their limits.
That trifecta is also what makes the series seem limited in terms of 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” (Warren’s father Rulon’s skin-crawling motto for his followers and line of wives).
The series’ tone, perhaps its most complex characteristic, aids in demonstrating that this epic has a more complex presence of light than just the total darkness of such tragedy. The series also instils a sense of loving attachments between parents and their children, or romantic relationships that began in tandem to other relationships of abuse and statutory rape, within the narrative of Jeffs’ devious crimes.
Even though the town and the children were continuously being swayed by whatever Jeffs wanted, some people found true love. It gives its never-before-seen images and home films a more challenging tone, where the many smiling faces and pastel costumes of young FLDS girls are always foreboding and cultish. But you believe that in those moments, the universe is on your side.
Many true crime documentaries can reveal their true colours with their objectives, and this isn’t one of them. The more powerful elements of “Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey” allow survivors to share their stories, giving hitherto anonymous heroes a public catharsis. The attempt to collect their stories is admirable. However, because it deals with trauma from beginning to end, frequently involving child sexual abuse, approaching this narrative primarily as a shocking play-by-play with a reptilian boogeyman at its core feels a little cheap. Something about “Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey” doesn’t quite set right with me.
Now available on Netflix.