Seven years after the triumph of the film the Chicago Tribune hailed as "one of the extraordinary television events of the decade," David Sutherland returns to PBS with "Country Boys," a moving portrait of the trials and triumphs of Chris Johnson and Cody Perkins, two boys coming of age in the Appalachian hills of Floyd Country in eastern Kentucky.
Filmed over three years (1999-2002), "Country Boys" tracks the dramatic stories of Chris and Cody from ages 15 to 18. With the same intimate cinematic technique and sound design that distinguished "The Farmer's Wife," Sutherland's new film bears witness to the two boys' struggles to overcome the poverty and family dysfunction of their childhood in a quest for a brighter future. This film also offers unexpected insights into a forgotten corner of rural America that is at once isolated and connected, a landscape dotted with roughshod trailer homes and wired with DSL.
Cody Perkins is an orphan. His mother's postpartum suicide left the infant boy in the care of his father, who, 12 years later, killed his seventh wife before turning the gun on himself. Bounced around among relatives he barely knew, Cody eventually chose to live with his former step-grandmother, Liz McGuire, who took the troubled boy into her home. "My daughter married Cody's father. She was his fourth wife [and] I fell in love with Cody," Liz recalls. "When Cody's father passed away, he went to live with his aunt. They couldn't get along, and Cody said, `I want to move in with Liz.' So he's been with me [ever since]." Offering unconditional love and strict maternal guidance, Liz helps transform Cody from an angry, depressed child into a compassionate young adult.
Chris Johnson lives in a rundown trailer in a Kentucky "holler" with his mother, Sheila, a high school dropout who cleans hotel rooms for a living, and his father, Randall, an alcoholic with terminal cirrhosis of the liver. With his mother often absent and his father lost in an alcoholic haze, Chris finds himself thrust into the role of both mother and father—cooking, cleaning, and taking care of his younger siblings. He also supports the family financially with the monthly Social Security disability check he receives for his learning disorders.
"There is no perfect family," says Chris. "My father isn't much of a role model. I mean, I don't exactly want to be like him. My mother and father's fighting over the littlest things, I can't take it! When I turn 18, I'm moving. That's it. I'm leaving."
Part I of "Country Boys" begins in the autumn of 1999, when Chris and Cody begin attending the David School, an alternative high school for troubled teens in David, Kentucky. The school is the center of the boys' daily life and the crucible for their adolescent struggle to find meaning and direction in their lives. We watch Cody find a new sense of belonging, not only in his home life with Liz, but through his heavy metal band, his faith in God, and his relationship with his girlfriend, Jessica, whose parents, Tammy and Ray Riddle, become a second family for him. The family discussions filmmaker Sutherland recorded between Cody, Jessica, and the Riddles dramatize, in often comic detail, contemporary struggles between all parents and teens over issues from early curfews to tattoos, sex, grades, jobs, and college.
"Jessica's dad didn't really like me too well at first," Cody explains, gesturing at his dyed hair, body piercings, and painted fingernails. "If you're her daddy, and your little girl brought home somebody who looked like me, you wouldn't like him too much either. But we get along pretty well, now." Ray Riddle, a mining technician with a passion for country music, provides many of the songs for the musical soundtrack of "Country Boys."
For Chris Johnson, the struggle to find his sense of purpose proves more intense and difficult. Chris is torn between his devotion to his family and his desire to get an education and escape the poverty that surrounds him. "I've always had trouble in school. It started when I was in first grade," remembers Chris. "They figured a behavior disorder unit would be better for me, which only made me worse. My mom tried to home school me, but she couldn't cope with it. I never turned in any work. I never did anything. Two years later, I decide to go back to school. The only problem was they were passing me without telling me. In other words, I had like a seventh grade education, and I was in high school."
In the first episode of "Country Boys," Chris's battle to succeed plays out most dramatically in his tortured attempts to start a school newspaper. Urged on by teachers anxious for him to have a success, Chris veers between hope and despair as the project challenges his skills, his tenacity, and his self-esteem. "I can't believe it!" says Chris. "I'm working on a newspaper. It's actually starting to work. And I've never succeeded at anything before."
But on the eve of publishing his first edition, a family emergency intervenes, and Chris abandons the project. After an extended absence, he falls hopelessly behind in his schoolwork. As the school year ends, Chris angrily gives up and fails all of his classes.
In Part II of "Country Boys," a friendship begins to develop between Cody and Chris as the boys attend classes together and work to start a school choir. "Cody is wild," Chris says. "He can make a joke out of anything. And that's awesome." Organizing the choir was Chris's idea, and its success boosts his self-confidence and gives him a renewed sense of direction. But at his moment of triumph, the grim realities of his family life intrude again. His mother, fed up with her husband's drinking, has decided to move out, leaving Chris behind with his father.
Cody, meanwhile, is grappling with the complicated reality of his extended family. Although he now lives happily with Liz, Cody is still legally in the custody of his aunt, who controls everything from permission for dental surgery to managing his Social Security survivor's benefits and an inheritance from his father Cody hopes will one day pay for his college education.
"[She] said that she has a piece of paper she wanted me to sign stating that I know where all my inheritance money is and how that's been spent," Cody says. "The only things I've heard was around Christmastime they told me I was almost broke. So I want to know if my family had spent money that they weren't supposed to spend out of my inheritance and Social Security."
Chris, depressed over his parents' break-up and bristling at living under his father's control, takes a job at Taco Bell, where his work hours quickly escalate to the point he is virtually working full-time. Tired and running on too few hours of sleep, his grades plummet. He recklessly pursues a relationship with a new girl in school and is accused of giving her illegal prescription drugs. On the verge of being expelled, he is forced to face a harsh reality: quit his job or abandon all hope for an education. For his family, the crisis is even more important: if Chris is forced to leave school, he will lose that Social Security disability check that is so vital to their support.
In the final episode of "Country Boys,"as Chris and Cody enter their senior year, their lives and hopes for the future take dramatically different directions. Chris has moved out of his father's trailer home. Burdened with the need to pay rent and expenses and no longer eligible for Social Security, he drops out of school entirely.
Cody, meanwhile, continues to do well in his studies. He and Jessica are talking of marriage and plan to attend college together. Cody continues to explore his passion for the church and tells his pastor he, too, is thinking of becoming a preacher. "I just want to do something for God in my lifetime that's more than just being a good Christian, I mean, you know not that there's anything wrong with just that, but I want to do something a little further."
Concerned that Chris is heading toward a bleak future, his teachers at the David School convince him to study for his GED and then secure a free apartment for him, so he can concentrate on his studies rather than taking another fast-food job. With more stability in his life, Chris passes the GED exam and is told he will graduate with his class. But as graduation day approaches, Chris is melancholy, convinced his family will not attend the ceremony. "I have no family to support me. I mean, not even emotionally," he says. "And it's kind of rough."
Cody's graduation, by contrast, is a celebration. To his surprise, Cody is chosen valedictorian of his class and is surrounded by family—his maternal grandparents, Liz and her daughter, Jessica and the Riddles. "I would like to thank all the teachers," says Cody in his graduation address. "I would like to thank my family, for taking me in and being there for me….If it wasn't for all these people I would never have realized why I needed to educate myself. Never quit chasing your dreams, they may or may not come true, but at least you had a dream to chase."
Chris, buoyed by graduating with his GED, and encouraged by his teachers, decides to apply to a local college. "A month ago I had completely dropped out of school, and now I have a chance at college," Chris says in a meeting with David School principal Danny Greene. "College for me is actually one of the scariest words in the vocabulary." But, as so often happens with Chris, this new hope will soon be followed by new setbacks.
"David Sutherland's exceptional film is really the story of the American dream seen though the eyes of two boys about to become men," says Michael Sullivan, FRONTLINE's executive producer for special projects. "It is an intimate journey through that exhilarating twilight of adolescence when our lives are poised between who we were born and who we could become. It is a story for everyone who remembers what it was like to be young."