Fourteen-year-old Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped from her family home in a middle class suburb of Salt Lake City on June 5, 2002. While she and the rest of her family slept, her abductor stood on two chairs beneath her bedroom window, cut through its fly screen and climbed into her room.
Once inside, he also accidentally also awoke Elizabeth's younger sister, Mary Katherine, but he persuaded both girls to stay silent by threatening them with a weapon. He then took Elizabeth away and disappeared into the woods behind her house. Mary Katherine was left to go and pass on to her parents the horrifying message that 'somebody's taken Elizabeth.'
The morning after the abduction Elizabeth's family held a press conference to publicise Elizabeth's plight and within hours upwards of 1,800 searchers were out looking for her. No leads were found, however, and soon the police were reduced to interviewing Elizabeth's own father, Ed, and her uncles.
The brothers cleared their names. All leads were dead, until, 'miraculously' as Ed insists, Mary Katherine realised who it was that had broken into her and her sister's room.
The young girl had always said that she recognised her sister's abductor's voice, but only remembered who it was when the memory came to her in a flash as she read through the Guinness Book of Records. It was 'Emmanuel' a man who had been in the house a few months ago to help Ed carry out some DIY.
The man going under the name of Emmanuel turned out to be a robe-wearing Mormon extremist. Accompanied by his wife, also robed and with her face covered by a veil, he raped Elizabeth, convinced her to obey his every whim (generally with dire threats against her family), and dragged her halfway across America and back, living in dried-up river beds, begging for food and haranguing strangers with bizarre religious diatribes.
The documentary becomes a gripping story of cat and mouse as the rest of the Smart family try to persuade the police to track down Emmanuel and bring him to the attention of the public.
However, it also inadvertently raises some troubling issues. The same faith that drove Emmanuel to such insane cruelty and gave him the justification he needed to live in polygamy is also proclaimed by the Smart family as their salvation: their staff during the dark days of Elizabeth's disappearance and the unifying force that motivated the local community to support them. So, is their religion the cause of their trouble or the solution? Or indeed, both?
Equally interesting is the final section of the film. Most of the interviews were recorded in March 2003, after Elizabeth's astonishing return, but the filmmakers went back as she approached the end of her teenage years to see how she and her family are coping, not just with what happened to them, but with the accompanying pressures of fame and celebrity.