Frontline, one of PBS’s flagship programs, most famous for controversial political reports on issues such as the use of torture by the United States, brings viewers a different kind of story–”Country Boys,” airing tonight through Wednesday, Jan. 11, at 9pm EST. “Country Boys,” a documentary directed by David Sutherland, follows the teenage years of Chris Johnson (above, right) and Cody Perkins (left) as they navigate the ups and downs of The David School, an alternative high school that is a last-stop option for teens struggling with drugs and alcohol, while at the same time managing extreme tragedy and poverty in Appalachia, one of the poorest and most rural regions of the United States and the place they call home.
Faith places a central role in both boys’ lives, but in vastly different ways. One of the most striking and moving moments of the documentary comes early on when Chris talks about his alcoholic father–who is shown drunk literally throughout the six-hour documentary–and the creative, resourceful way Chris has made up for the role model he lacks but desperately needs. Chris introduces viewers to Xavier, holding up a hand-drawn picture of this character who is “his own personal hero” and has the characteristics of “power, strength, intelligence, bravery, and can win against the odds.” Chris explains: “Even though Xavier is fictional, he keeps me going,” and “whenever I begin to feel invisible, I think of Xavier.”
Created as an incredible act of self-preservation, Xavier is not only the role model that fills the void Chris’s father has left, but also serves as a god-figure in Chris’s life. The fragility of the fictional nature of Chris’s makeshift savior becomes obvious as his story unfolds and he struggles deeply with isolation, his efforts and failures at friendships and romance, and an overall faith in himself and his ability to follow through on all the many creative endeavors he starts but can’t quite finish. Chris’s faith life is a lonely one.
Cody, on the other hand, is a classic example of the American born-again teenager, but with a not-so-classic family history. Cody is saved by Jesus shortly after his father murders his stripper stepmother with an AK-47 and then turns the gun on himself, committing suicide. Even before that tragic incident (Cody is 12 at the time), Cody is no stranger to family violence: His birth-mother killed herself with a gun when he was younger. At age 15, when audiences first meet Cody, he is a mass of contradictions: a sweet-natured boy with a similarly sweet-natured, devoted girlfriend, who tries his best at school and strives to be himself–yet he’s someone with a shockingly disturbing family past and a personal history of drug addiction. Cody wears a Goth persona on the outside (his dyed black hair grows ever-longer in tune with the documentary), complete with his own Goth-style band, yet he critiques Goth culture for lacking faith in Christ and having no morals, and in his spare time he plays in the decidely tame youth band at the Faith Baptist Nondenominational Church. Cody wears his faith on his sleeve–quite literally, in his choice of t-shirts–and never stops talking about the role of God in making him who he is today. At one point, he explains that “before I was saved I was suicidal, but then I found a new reason to live.”
Cody’s Goth band is twice shown playing a song he calls “Death.” If you can stand the sound and make out his lyrics–which are delivered Marilyn Manson frightening-style–listen carefully to the story the song tells about experiencing the murder of his stepmother and suicide of his father. I quote in part: “God is the only one keeping me sane, otherwise I would just put a bullet in my brain.” In a moving moment late in the documentary, Cody reveals to his girlfriend Jessica his aspirations to become a preacher.
While both Chris and Cody face intense struggles and each has his own unique moments of success, the strength and compass Cody finds through his relationship with Christ makes all the difference as he moves forward in life–a unifying center and path that Chris lacks but sorely needs. It is interesting to watch how faith makes the difference between the two boys’ lives.
Chris and Cody’s story is slow-moving overall, but with commitment, it yields many small moments of reward that will be moving for viewers who stick with them through the lulls, loneliness, and occasional joys of life as a teenager in the Appalachian hills.