The Reveals of First-Hand Footage From a Notorious Cult
The true crime genre continues to grip viewers around the world — from huge YouTube platforms dedicated to detailing cases to feature films, television series, and documentaries. The hook to a lot of these narrative true crime stories is that they don’t just cover the basic facts, but really delve deep into the psychology behind both of the victims and the perpetrator. This is exactly what Hulu’s documentary, Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence does.
When Larry Ray was released from prison in 2009, he moved into his daughter’s residence at Sarah Lawrence College, where she was living with five other friends. The temporary arrangement soon became more permanent, with Larry cooking dinner, cleaning the house, and crashing on their couch every night. As he became a regular presence in these college students’ lives, he started revealing his philosophy to them — a philosophy that was the supposed answer to overcoming grief and trauma in order to become the best version of oneself.
The young, intellectual, curious students were gripped, and as Larry revealed impressive details of his life — most of which turned out to be untrue — the students became convinced of his authority and knowledge.
The summer after their sophomore year, several of the students lived with Larry in a one-bedroom Upper East Side apartment he was renting, which is when the real manipulation tactics started — from public humiliation, physical pain, forced confessions, and isolation to sleep deprivation and coerced sexual acts, all in the name of enlightenment.
There are claims that those with higher IQs are statistically more likely to join a cult due to their desire to expand their minds, find some kind of truths, and become the best version of themselves — all goals that are shared by cults. In Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence, audiences can see exactly how a group of intellectual and highly educated individuals fell prey to a cult. Starting from the very beginning, we hear each survivor’s story told in their own words as they recount the tactics Larry used to incite fear into them, subsequently controlling every aspect of their lives and minds.
Over the course of multiple interviews with several of the Sarah Lawrence Cult survivors, we get first-hand accounts of the events that happened over the span of the ten years that Larry had control over these young adults. These interviews are supplemented with footage that Larry — who insisted on documenting everything — recorded at the time. This footage is extremely hard to watch, as it depicts intense interrogation sessions that Larry would put the victims through, often resulting in breakdowns and violence. There’s one particularly disturbing video that shows one of the victims, Felicia, being thrown to the floor and pinned down by Larry while in a dazed and hysterical state. Another depicts one of the students, Daniel, being repeatedly punched in the stomach by Larry as he is accused of being “distrustful” and a “betrayer” for questioning his own sexuality.
Felicia had become one of Larry’s primary focuses (they even called each other husband and wife) and remained in his psychological grasp even after he was arrested in 2020. The documentary follows Felicia over several years, allowing audiences to see her slowly escape the psychological prison that Larry placed her in and regain her sense of self, reconnect with her family, and begin to recover from the trauma she endured.
All of the interviews with the survivors are very raw and honest, making the story so much more personal and real to the viewer. The director, Zachary Heinzerling, takes a very gentle and non-judgmental approach, which is key to letting the victims who hadn’t fully recovered at the time of filming still have the freedom to tell their story.
The mix of old footage, audio recordings, photographs, interviews, and little animations create a well-rounded aesthetic that feels genuine and unassuming. Particularly interesting is the use of little animations, especially in the beginning of the documentary when the students are recounting the start of their time at college before Larry entered their lives. It creates a stark contrast between the simple, happy, fresh-to-college atmosphere and Larry’s cramped, dirty, isolating apartment that they ended up living in for many years. As the victims recount the joy of connecting with their new friends at college — staying up late dancing and talking, spending every spare minute together, feeling like they were forming a new kind of family — simple animations of human-like figures hugging and dancing around the screen appear. These animations disappear after Larry enters the story, just as the victims’ youth disappeared after he entered their lives.
The documentary rarely films scenery at either Sarah Lawrence or New York City. It primarily uses footage of the student house where they lived at Sarah Lawrence or the apartment on the Upper East Side, in addition to the interviews and footage that Larry took. This emphasizes the isolation that the students faced once they were under Larry’s influence. Despite being surrounded by peers at college and living in one of the biggest cities in the world, the students were so separated from the outside world that it was as if they were in a bubble that Larry created, which is reflected in the cinematography.
Stolen Youth: The Cult at Sarah Lawrence does a superb job of telling the victims’ stories in a truthful and unprejudiced manner, which is especially important considering that some of the students were still struggling with Larry’s influence at the time of filming. While it lacks some detail on Larry’s background, motivation, and psychology, the overall story is about the victims and their journey, and it does a superb job of telling that story. It can be streamed on Hulu.
Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence (2023) Official Hulu Trailer
|Lorna grew up in London and now works in photography production in New York.She studied film in college, focusing her final study on biopics. She also has written, produced, and directed her short films.|