In a three-year span spread across three compelling episodes, two sweet teenagers from backwater Kentucky come of age. Boys trying so damn hard to wiggle out from under their own grim lives, they surely wondered why anyone else would want to get sucked in. But documentarian David Sutherland (whose 1988 film The Farmer’s Wife sent TV critics raiding thesauruses for superlatives) picked Chris Johnson and Cody Perkins to represent a whole collection of tattered myths: the teenager, rural Appalachian life, and the American dream.
On Frontline‘s website for “Country Boys,” Sutherland mentions his intention to conjure an intimacy akin to that of My So-Called Life—a surprising reference point for such a straight-ahead documentarian, but one that suggests Sutherland’s got his eye on familiar dramatic narratives, stuff that feels piercing and recognizable, like rejection and awkwardness and breaking free of one’s family. It’s not that his shots are filled with photogenic adolescents like Claire Danes; pretty much every kid in sight looks sallow, acne riddled, and overweight. But the camera sneaks inside its subjects’ lives with startling fluidity, capturing mundane high school moments and intensifying even the most mumbled everyday conversation, as if we’d traveled one step beyond the voyeuristic looking glass.
When we meet Chris Johnson, he’s a charming, hesitant 16-year-old trapped in the wasteland of his family’s life. His hard-bitten mom cleans hotel rooms, Dad drinks, and Chris takes much of the responsibility for the daily care of his siblings and their trailer home—a pretty nice one, complete with computer and VCR. Chris’s monthly Social Security check for a supposed learning disability keeps the family afloat financially, but his spectacular recent progress at an alternative high school called the David School confirms that he’s not slow at all. Cody Perkins is another David School student emerging from an awful legacy. His mother committed suicide, his father murdered his stepmother and then shot himself, and Cody spent his adolescence bouncing among family members. As the doc begins, Cody has traded a near-lethal drug habit for Jesus and death metal. While Chris invents a cartoon hero named Xavier, Cody writes cathartically personal songs and performs them with his band at Christian youth functions, wowing the girls with his tattoos and piercings.
Although Sutherland alternates between the two boys, Chris quickly becomes more compelling. Cody has created a whole chain of parental substitutes to keep him aloft—not least the Lord—and has made the most of his religion-saturated isolation, whereas Chris’s life feels almost sickeningly precarious. Every time he gets excited and ambitious about something (starting a school newspaper, asking a girl out, or applying to a local college) he gets slapped down by circumstance. He sabotages opportunities, too, falling back on low expectations of himself as just another dumb, poor Appalachian kid. In his voiceovers, Chris sounds exaggeratedly articulate and wise, his clear diction radiating sobriety. But even he gets infected by youthful optimism sometimes, and one wonders how much the three years of filming influenced Chris and Cody, knowing that someone from the wider world took an interest in their limited lives.