Friday, Apr 20, 2018
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Hardscrabble lives: Filmmaker follows hopes, dreams of 2 Appalachian youths


Cody Perkins, left, practices the guitar under the mentorship of his girlfriend's father, Ray Riddle.


Filmmaker David Sutherland is a great storyteller but also a particular kind of storyteller. His focus is often on those who rarely get media attention. And when he trains his camera on them, it reveals a reality that's often far removed from assumed stereotypes.

That was certainly the case in his 1998 PBS effort, The Farmer's Wife, which chronicled the tough life of a Nebraska farm family. He returns with a six-hour Frontline docudrama, Country Boys, which runs at 9 p.m. today-Wednesday on most PBS channels. It chronicles the lives of Chris Johnson and Cody Perkins, teenage boys living in eastern Kentucky's Appalachian hills.

A self-described portraitist, Sutherland aims his camera at subjects and doesn't flinch at what he sees. He captures them at their best and worst and, in so doing, reveals their humanity.

Filmed from 1999-2002 as Cody and Chris age from 15 to 18, Sutherland tells two disparate coming-of-age stories as the boys seek to find their place in the world and break from pasts that gave neither a solid foundation on which to build a life.

Cody was orphaned when his mother committed suicide. He lived with his father until his dad murdered his seventh wife, then killed himself. Cody found a rock in Liz McGuire, his step-grandmother (the mother of his dad's fourth wife), who offers unconditional love, often beginning her sentences with a supportive but firm, "Now, Cody "

Chris lives in a ramshackle trailer with his high-school-dropout mom and his father, an alcoholic with terminal cirrhosis of the liver. Chris often has to act as a parent to his younger siblings and supports the family with a Social Security disability check he receives for learning disabilities.

Sutherland lays out one goal for the film in the opening by using a sound bite from one of the teachers at the privately funded alternative high school the boys attend. The teacher tells his class, "I hope you make a decision to break that stereotype that we're a bunch of ignorant hillbillies who only know how to draw a check from the government."

Throughout the six hours - which pass by quickly - viewers see Chris struggle with his family, his goal to graduate from high school, his insecurity, and his ability to balance his ambition with the realities of his daily life.

Cody, an independent thinker, is shown trying to figure out his own life goals and loves (music and girlfriend Jessica) while coming to terms with his ancestry.

Both boys are clearly intelligent. Chris, in particular, is well-spoken, and it's easy to understand why his teachers at The David School want so badly for him to succeed: They know he has the smarts to make it.

Sutherland allows the boys to narrate

Both boys are clearly intelligent. Chris, in particular, is well-spoken, and it's easy to understand why his teachers want so badly for him to succeed: They know he has the smarts to make it.

Occasionally, especially in Night Two, the sound editing seems choppy and unnatural, as if sound bites were squashed together for dramatic effect. And, frustratingly, Sutherland allows the film to end on Night Three without an update on what the boys are doing today. (Spoiler alert! The last paragraph of this article reveals what has happened to the boys since filming ended.

Country Boys is touching, frustrating (when you see the boys headed down the wrong path), and evocative of a part of the country that rarely gets the media spotlight. The show's theme song, "Country Boy" by Ray Riddle, sets the tone.

As of July, 2005, Chris was running his own lawn-care business and still dreamed of attending college. His father has died. Cody married his high-school sweetheart, Jessica, and both work at a pizza shop while his Christian heavy-metal band ( works on a new CD.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rob Owen is the TV editor for the Post-Gazette.

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