Date: January 15, 2019

A Place in the Sun

The Wall Street Journal Review_Country Boys
By Amy Finnerty
Jan. 6, 2006 

"Country Boys" is not so much "reality TV" (a concept now so abused as to be almost meaningless) as embedded TV, in which a documentarian plants his camera in the midst of someone's life, and lets it run... for three years.

The result is a six-hour Frontline documentary, airing on PBS for three consecutive nights (Jan. 9, 10 and 11, 9-11 p.m. ET, check local listings), which offers an unflinching view of adolescence and American poverty, as personified by two Appalachian boys, Chris and Cody, who attend The David School, an alternative high school in eastern Kentucky.
The film is by David Sutherland (best known for the widely praised "The Farmer's Wife"), and one marvels at his diplomacy. Somehow, he insinuates himself into the lives of his subjects without seeming to cramp the frankness of their behavior. He dissolves into their daily rhythms so that we, too, seem to be present in the trailer, the classroom, the kitchen of a Taco Bell.

PBS's documentary 'Country Boys'
Chris and Cody, filmed here between the ages of 15 and 18, may be alien to the average PBS viewer; their challenges put middle-class achievement angst in humbling perspective. Yet, like one falling for an unlikely suitor, we quickly become emotionally invested in the success of the two boys, cursing the roadblocks that hinder their progress and longing for their success.
Thank God for Mitzi Crisp, we say of the tireless principal of the school, herself once a teen mother. The academics may not be cutting-edge -- the science teacher, forgetting the timeline of evolution, states: "I don't believe Christ looked like an ape." But the school and the local clergy, who convey a Hugs Not Drugs wholesomeness, are the best options in town.
Scenically, the film interweaves grim downtowns, breathtaking hillsides, "Jesus Saves" billboards and mournful shots of trains passing through town -- all no less true for being Appalachian clichés. And we certainly learn where the market for tacky Santa sweaters is concentrated. But it's the boys' narratives -- not sociological commentary, of which there is little -- that keep us riveted.

Chris, his eyes ringed from fatigue, lives in a trailer with a mother who dispenses smokes for breakfast, and a drunken father. A feisty hog lives in the yard. Diagnosed in childhood with a learning disorder, Chris is bright, and responsible to a fault. But his social-security checks underwrite the dysfunctional mess at home, so his learning-challenged status must be protected, to insidious effect. As he approaches any goal -- a high-school degree, a nearby college -- he becomes paralyzed, afraid to leave his needy parents behind and move forward.
Cody, by contrast, benefits from an uplifting role model. Liz, the surrogate grandmother who took him in as an orphan, calmly and firmly walks him through adolescence, praising every positive act -- from cleaning his room (including discarded condoms off the floor) to investing his money. Her tidy house is a relative paradise after Cody's appalling past. His mother committed suicide when he was an infant. His father killed his seventh wife (a stripper, in case you thought the tale insufficiently lurid) before shooting himself.
Cody is also religious. With a steady Christian girlfriend, and playing in a Goth Christian band, he seems touched by grace, even when wearing black nail polish. Despite the rough hand he's been dealt, he expresses his gratitude for his good fortune at every opportunity. His humility and optimism are the hopeful heart of the film, and Cody's salvation.