The threads of life in rural Appalachia
“Country Boys,” which begins tonight on PBS and continues through Wednesday, is a six-hour documentary about three years in the life of two eastern Kentucky teenagers. It’s a long and at times slow film that some viewers will undoubtedly find tedious and frustrating, though I would count its length and pace among its virtues -- perhaps the best thing about television, as a medium, is that it has the luxury of time.
Directed by David Sutherland, who made the equally epic “The Farmer’s Wife,” about a Nebraska family’s struggles to keep its farm, “Country Boys” doesn’t have quite the power of the earlier film, with its narrower focus and the clear-cut drama of Man versus Nature. But it has the same extraordinary quality of taking you to another place -- the Appalachian Kentucky town of David, this time -- and soaking you in it. In a way, it’s the thematic opposite of “The Farmer’s Wife,” which was all about the struggle to hang on to a way of life, while the issue here is how to escape it.
“We live in an impoverished area,” says a teacher at the David School, a nonprofit, no-tuition “alternative high school” for kids who have failed in public schools or whom the public schools have failed. He describes how “in the 1960s, the welfare system was created, the War on Poverty, and national TV crews came through here like crazy. They showed how these mountain people were barbarians, uneducated. I mean, they really put ‘em down.”
“I’ve only been out of state once in my life. I went over the Ohio River -- by accident,” says Chris Johnson, one of Sutherland’s country boys along with classmate Cody Perkins.
Each is articulate, in a quiet way; they are outsiders even in a world of outsiders. Their paths cross occasionally, and both are trying to finish school, but they’re on separate trajectories, carrying different handicaps.
Cody’s mother killed herself when he was an infant; 12 years later, his father killed himself and Cody’s stepmother. Eventually, Cody came to live with one of his step-grandmothers. He wears Jesus on his T-shirt, a dog collar around his neck, black polish on his nails and his hair in a succession of flamboyant styles. Having passed through drugs, the occult and attempted suicide, he has given himself to God and fronts a Christian metal band.
He is not, however, a blind follower: “Be sure whatever you believe is ‘cause you have really sat down and thought about it,” he advises classmates, “and not just ‘cause that’s how you were raised. Because if that’s the only reason you believe it, then you really don’t believe anything.”
Most significantly, he has a talent for intimacy, and a steady girlfriend. Her father, a mining technician, writes and sings country songs -- good ones -- in a rich Waylon-esque baritone, some of which play on the soundtrack.
Chris lives in a trailer with his mother, brother, sister and father, who is slowly dying of cirrhosis. Chris is sweet and lonely, resentful toward parents who seem to ask from him more than they’re able to give, and plagued by ingrained pessimism and a heartbreaking talent for snatching defeat from the jaws of triumph. Yet for all his self-proclaimed shyness (“I got the bad trait, it’s called Be Seen but Not Heard”) he is well spoken, and despite his rage at family members, he is continually drawn back toward them.
Inevitably, the film is something of a patchwork; cameras were not always present over the three years, so characters pop in and out, certain threads disappear into the ether, much happens offstage. But it hangs together and gathers force -- by taking its time, it sensitizes you to nuance, until the smallest, most awkward stabs at connection or expression become terrifically moving.
Although it is presented under the banner of “Frontline,” usually a forum for investigative journalism, “Country Boys” isn’t muckraking or even “informative” -- it raises more questions than it answers. It isn’t about rural poverty, or alcoholism, or the dedication of teachers, or storefront churches, or love -- although those things are part of the picture -- or anything as general as “teenagers in Appalachia.” It’s only about the people who are in it; any two other kids’ stories would be different.
It isn’t even up to date, having been shot between 1999 and 2002. It straddles the pre- and post-Sept. 11 worlds, but it doesn’t register that change. Sutherland has said that he was surprised to find the kids in this still remote part of the country so plugged in, but the outside world barely penetrates the film he made there.
If there is a message to extract, it might be that every kid needs a sympathetic adult in his life, but I think that’s almost an incidental point. I’m not sure Sutherland has a point, beyond awakening a feeling of common humanity in his viewers, and I can’t imagine a better one. Insofar as any edited work can be executed nonjudgmentally, this comes close to that ideal. It’s a rare thing on television, such passionate dispassion -- but then, it’s a rare thing anywhere.
‘Frontline: Country Boys’
When: 9 to 11 tonight
Executive producer Michael Sullivan. Director David Sutherland.