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Setting raunch in Amish country

'Sex Drive' is just the latest Hollywood offering that mines the friction between modern America and the Christian sect.

October 17, 2008|Chris Lee | Times Staff Writer
  • ?SEX DRIVE?: In the sex comedy, Seth Green, left, plays an Amish auto mechanic and Clark Duke is one of three suburban Chicago teens who gets an eyeful from Amish teenagers.
?SEX DRIVE?: In the sex comedy, Seth Green, left, plays an Amish auto mechanic… (Summit Entertainment )

Chin whiskers and horse-drawn buggies. Women in bonnets and unadorned frocks. Long days of earnest labor and active avoidance of modern conveniences. Amish country isn't the first place you'd imagine the protagonists of a raunchy sex comedy to wind up -- especially on a cross-country road trip intended to slake teenage libidos.

But in "Sex Drive" (which pulls into multiplexes today), a trio of high school senior protagonists travels from suburban Chicago to Tennessee so that virginal uber-goober Ian (Josh Zuckerman) can answer the mother of all booty calls after he meets who he thinks is the girl of his dreams online. The characters find themselves in the Amish homeland after their "borrowed" hot rod throws a gasket.

Rather than encountering Bible-thumbing God-fearing folk there, however, the kids end up at a raucous party-till-you-puke fiesta at which Amish youth shotgun beers, are nude in public, smoke bong hits and mosh to the emo band Fall Out Boy.

This is the movie's depiction of rumspringa: a real-life Amish rite of passage that literally translates to "running around" in Pennsylvania Dutch. During rumspringa, Amish as young as 16 are given a hall pass to engage in rebellious behavior (binge drinking, smoking and casual sex fall under this rubric) so they might enter the Anabaptist church fully informed about what they are giving up.

"They're strict religious shut-ins," John Morris, the film's co-writer, said. "They store it up and go nuts. They unload because they're repressed."

"Sex Drive's" co-writer and director, Sean Anders, said he and Morris considered basing an entire movie around rumspringa after seeing the acclaimed 2002 documentary "Devil's Playground," which features Amish getting hooked on methamphetamines and abusing marijuana and booze while testing the world outside their communities. But ultimately the filmmakers decided to fold rumspringa into a more teen-friendly plot.

"We 'English' have a fascination with these people," Anders said, using the Amish term for people outside their community. "They're the only people in America who really, truly, absolutely do their own thing and don't care what anybody else is up to. And if somebody made up a story about these people that want to live without gadgets and TV, movies and music, nobody would believe it. Then there's this tradition of rumspringa, where they go off and experience the world for a couple of years -- it's stranger than fiction."

Of course, "Sex Drive" is hardly the first film to address the friction between modern America and the Amish. The subject has been mined for comedy and drama in a growing number of movies and television shows (such as the reality series "Amish in the City"), as well as songs like "Weird Al" Yankovic's "Amish Paradise," that have handled the religious community with varying levels of sensitivity.

"Unfortunately, the Amish are viewed as exotic 'others,' not as neighbors that are normal human beings," said Donald Kraybill, an expert on Amish and Anabaptist studies with more than 20 books to his credit.

"These fabrications persist in the American imagination. Because it is such a distinct countercultural community, it has easily stolen symbols, bonnets, beards, that are manipulated in the media. The larger society has a lot of fun at Amish expense."

Conflict between the hermetically sealed Amish universe and certain un-Amish, temporal concerns is at the heart of the Farrelly brothers' ribald 1996 comedy, "Kingpin." In that movie, Randy Quaid costars as Ishmael Boorg, an Amish man from Pennsylvania Dutch country with a forbidden passion for bowling. His whole way of life is upturned by a washed-up former child bowling prodigy (Woody Harrelson) who convinces Boorg to compromise Amish tradition and compete in a $1-million tournament. Vomit-inducing bouts of sex, ritual humiliation and condom jokes ensue.

Of course, the granddaddy of the genre is "Witness," the 1985 crime potboiler starring Harrison Ford as a Philadelphia detective who goes undercover, posing as an Amish man in Lancaster County, Pa., while trying to flush out police corruption. Along the way, he falls in love with the Amish mother (Kelly McGillis) of a young boy who had witnessed a high-ranking officer commit a brutal murder. And she risks being "shunned" -- the worst possible fate for a devout Amish person -- for her receptiveness to his advances.

Amish plots and characters have appeared on TV shows including "ER," "Las Vegas," "Strong Medicine," "Cold Case," "Grey's Anatomy" and "Judging Amy," and rumspringa features into an episode last May of "My Name Is Earl" in which Jason Lee's titular character attempts to atone for taking sexual advantage of seven Amish virgins while they were on the oats-sowing rite of passage.

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