For everyone who remembers what it was like to be young -- when the whole world seemed to stretch out before you while you were stuck in your own backyard -- this special FRONTLINE series tells the story of Chris and Cody: two boys growing up in a hard land, determined to beat the odds against them, and struggling with who they are -- and who they can become.
A companion film of sorts to the 1998 PBS blockbuster "The Farmer's Wife," Country Boys turns the lens to Cody Perkins and Chris Johnson, two teenage boys from Appalachian Kentucky.
Although wired to the world via the internet and cable, they are deeply rooted in a region stigmatized as "other," where the lack of economic opportunity puts its youth under uncommon pressure. The film follows them over three years, from ages 15 to 18, examining what it means to come of age in Appalachia.
Cody Perkins is an orphan. His mother's postpartum suicide left him in the care of his father, who, twelve years later, killed his seventh wife before turning the gun on himself. After being passed among relatives, Cody chooses to live with his former step-grandmother, who opens her heart and home to the lost youth. Cody's hand-picked family also includes his girlfriend, Jessica, and her parents, Ray and Tammy. The director of several local mines and a country singer, Ray becomes an iconic father figure for both boys.
Chris Johnson lives in a trailer with his mother, his father, two siblings and his grandmother. With both parents often absent, Chris, the eldest, finds himself thrust into the role of caretaker- emotionally supporting his siblings even as his meager SSI check and string of low-paying jobs financially support the family.
Over six hours of television, Country Boys will traverse the emotional terrain of the boys as they journey to adulthood, struggling to overcome the dysfunction and poverty of their youth and in so doing come to a place of meaning and direction.
For Cody, that sense of belonging is found through his heavy metal Christian band, his faith in God and his relationship with his girlfriend Jessica. Chris, however, struggles to find similar comfort. Torn between devotion to his family and commitment to education, he searches, often in vain, to find a path where he can meet his familial responsibilities without losing his sense of self.
A word from the filmmaker on the genesis of "Country Boys"
Just before "The Farmer's Wife" aired for the first time, one of my funders conducted a test screening. The response was generally positive, but a large number of viewers said that the Buschkoetters didn't "look poor". I was surprised, to say the least, because even though they had a small house and sent their children to parochial school, the family lived way below the poverty level and often didn't have enough food to eat. So that response got me thinking, "what does poverty look like?" I remembered the photos on the covers of Life and Look magazines in the late '50s and early '60s, when the media had enough money to send correspondents down to West Virgina and the rest of Appalachia, and thought how over the last 25 years poverty has taken on an urban face. I don't mean to say that urban poverty isn't a problem, but over the past decade or so media coverage has focused more and more on breaking news and urban issues and less and less on the plight of the rural poor. That convinced me to go to Appalachia.
After "The Farmer's Wife" aired, I worked with the Lutheran Disaster Relief and other rural mental health groups to speak with family farmers in the Midwest, and through this work I was introduced to a network of preachers and service groups that extends across Appalachia. With their help, I gained access to backwoods hollows where reporters and filmmakers can't usually go. As I began my search for subjects, which took me into every county in West Virginia in Eastern Kentucky, I read several syndicated columns about how rural America is being left behind in the technology age. I am a portraitist, not an investigative reporter, but what I saw totally belied the articles. As an example: in 1999, much of Magoffin County (in Kentucky) was at or below the lowest poverty level in the United States. In the same year, 70% of that county was wired for the internet, way above the national average at that time. Imagine, throughout Appalachia, seeing children coming out of a clapboard trailer, surrounded by fighting cocks in cages and attack dogs, and on the roof of the trailer there's this enormous satellite dish! Everyone had MTV, and no matter how poor the conditions in which these families lived, all the kids understood my 60's lingo. Nothing was what I had assumed it would be. The teenagers in these areas were sophisticated on the computer in a way that even affluent college students sometimes are not. They were buying strings for their guitars on the same website as David Bowie, I mean, they knew everything.
I had originally wanted to do a portrait of a small hollow, but I was so struck by the sophistication level of the high school kids, and by their media perceptions of themselves through the outside world, that I shifted my focus entirely. I guess I was most interested in the commonality between Appalachian kids and kids all over the US. I never have an agenda, and I knew that the social issues raised in an area with drastically limited opportunities would resonate with people from all walks of life. When I decided to film at the David School, I needed the type of access where I could film the classroom scenes close up and intimate like in the TV series "My So Called Life", except that was fiction and this film is real life.
Chris Johnson and Cody Perkins both had strong personalities and strong voices - they were able to speak clearly and effectively about what was going on in their lives. I always trust my instincts, and when I found them I knew they would be in it for the long haul. Life happens faster in Appalachia - you've got to get a job when you get out of high school, there's no other choice, and kids get thrown into adulthood much faster than they do in suburbia. Besides the usual drama of teenage life, both kids had troubled pasts with school and their families, and I knew that if I followed them there would be a drama that would be both universal and representative of Appalachia.