Half the battle in pulling together a creatively successful true-crime documentary is, surely, finding the right story — one that can hold our interest and can, potentially, generate insights beyond the simple facts of the case. But the other half, the filmmaker’s approach, matters every bit as much. In narrating the famous tale of a bizarre ring of extortion that bloomed at Sarah Lawrence College in the early 2010s, “Stolen Youth” director Zach Heinzerling certainly has his subject. But with a startling rawness and directness, Heinzerling’s work makes a case for itself as an unusually sensitive and strong outing in its genre.
Those familiar with the case of Larry Ray, a parent of a Sarah Lawrence student who moved into his daughter’s housing at the Bronxville, N.Y., liberal arts college, may have learned about it from coverage in New York Magazine, which ran a lengthy feature on the story in 2019. One of that story’s co-authors tells Heinzerling’s cameras that reporting on Ray was surprisingly easy: “Everyone in his life is a player in this game, and he needs an audience.” As applied to a circle of unformed young people curious about the grown-up in their midst, the game Ray plays is one of domination, brainwashing them into needing his approval.
In this three-part doc, Ray is heard, in audio footage of various interrogations and debriefings, making demands of his student housemates or spinning wild claims about his own personal history. We’re told he impressed his daughter’s friends with stories of his exploits as a high-flying government agent; this repeated puffery, along with the schoolmates’ relative remove from the campus dorms in special housing, may account for why Ray was eventually able to convince them to pay for objects he claimed they broke, or that their parents and former New York Police Commissioner Bernie Kerik (a Ray bête noire) were working in concert to poison them.
Ray was sentenced to 60 years in prison in January 2023, after the documentary was completed and sent out to critics. Viewers will walk away with little doubt that justice was done. What’s most striking about “Stolen Youth” is not its depiction of Ray’s executing his scheme but of that scheme’s very long tail. The final of three episodes shows Felicia Rosario, a Columbia medical school graduate introduced to Ray by her brother and drawn into his orbit, trying to shake off the brainwashing she endured. Looking through a list of abuses Ray claimed that she suffered — in order to convince Rosario that she needed his protection — the onetime aspiring doctor is lost. “It doesn’t feel real,” she says. “I don’t know what’s true.” And looking at pictures of her family, Rosario feels an emotional pull toward them, even as she had been told for years that they were trying to kill her, in cahoots with Kerik. “In Larry Land, these are all the bad people,” she says, ruefully.
It’s this tone of melancholy that distinguishes “Stolen Youth.” It’d be easy to gawk not merely at Ray’s crimes but at his victims; certainly, Rosario’s torching her career and her family ties in order to cement her bond with a near-stranger decades her senior is one that grabs our attention as well as our sympathy. But her attempt at moving past the years that were taken from her make for a thoughtful and stylish way to approach a narrative that, in less able hands, might have been gripping but scented with exploitation. Here, what was done to the kids of Sarah Lawrence matters, but so does how they work to overcome it — with varying degrees of difficulty. And it’s through watching what it takes to undo successful mind control that the power of the first half of the documentary’s subject matter, the crimes against these kids, grows all the more powerful: “Stolen Youth” makes the case, in the end, that pushing past Ray’s abuses will take everything they have.
It’s a baleful note, but not a hopeless one — change is hard, but not impossible. Ending here, gracefully and with a bit of sorrow, after having brought us through years of suffering and maltreatment, “Stolen Youth” stands out within its genre — it feels not just “true” but real.