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'COUNTRY BOYS' FACE HARD KNOCKS.

Byline: David Kronke TV Critic

THOSE WHO SAW David Sutherland's ``The Farmer's Wife'' in 1998 have probably already made plans to hunker down for the next three evenings to watch his latest, ``Country Boys,'' a ``Frontline'' documentary miniseries following two teen boys through some difficult formative years. Those who didn't see Sutherland's earlier film but are interested in raw, honest depictions of hardscrabble lives virtually free of authorial commentary should join in.

Sutherland spent considerable portions of three years - 1999 through 2001 - following Chris Johnson and Cody Perkins through their impoverished lives in fading Appalachian Kentucky coal country (a recurring visual metaphor is of rusting, weary trains mournfully groaning through town). The two attend an alternative high school, though they only occasionally drift into one another's orbits.

Cody's mother killed herself; his father then murdered his stepmother before turning his gun on himself. Perkins survived this ordeal by embracing a goth-metal Christian lifestyle (in Tuesday's installment, we watch him get his nipples pierced): ``I'm the town attraction, I guess,'' he drawls laconically.

He plays in a metal Christian band, performing autobiographical songs: ``Well, I was 12 years old without a father/Two shots to the chest!/Flesh hits the wall!'' one goes. ``God is the only one keeping me safe/Otherwise I would just put a bullet in my brain.'' But Cody has surrounded himself with friends and, sometimes, extended family; he has an adoring girlfriend, Jessica, whose own father was a once-almost-successful songwriter and accepts Cody, if sometimes begrudgingly.

Though Cody's life is far more dramatically tragic, Chris finds his more difficult to endure in the course of the film. His mother eternally abandons his impossible alcoholic father, leaving Chris to fend for himself (he pines, usually unsuccessfully, for female companionship). He's a polite, uncommonly well-spoken young man (by contrast, Cody's a little inarticulate and a fount of urban-legend-style information and theories) - Johnson's voice-over narration sounds like he has carefully composed it, but then, so does much of his everyday conversation.

Chris created a mythical, sword-wielding, cloud-soaring hero ``to keep my problems and my anger under control,'' he explains. ``Even though he is fictional, I can look up to him. The thought of him keeps me going.''

If just barely. Tonight, he tries to assemble a school newsletter, but fate and his own sense of failure prevent it from reaching realization, and he more or less drops out of school. Tuesday, he returns with a renewed determination, and organizes a school choir, whose dispirited versions of ``Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer'' and ``Amazing Grace'' are almost dirgelike. Nonetheless, on the day Chris wants to tell his parents of his choir's triumph, they've decided to split up for good, sending Chris reeling anew.

It's heartbreaking stuff, but Sutherland doesn't have a maudlin bone in his body as he depicts all this with a matter-of-fact naturalism that leaves one marveling at how candidly he seemed to be able to capture myriad troubled lives.

One wonders, briefly, if Sutherland's cameras might have been responsible for the almost superhuman efforts teachers and school officials put into prodding these guys to get their diplomas. And a couple of moments are essayed too obliquely - an incident involving Chris, a girl and some drugs; and a school official's abrupt resignation.

Sutherland frames much of the action around images of insipid inspiration emanating from local church marquees (``God Answers Knee-Mail,'' ``Worry About Nothing/Pray About Everything'') that seem to belie the facts of these desperate lives. But Cody truly has found solace in his faith, and even considers becoming a preacher.

As the film ends, the boys' fates have, obviously, scarcely been resolved; hope for their futures is tenuous at best. In this way, the film is less reminiscent of Sutherland's earlier film than of the equally exemplary documentary ``Hoop Dreams,'' which followed two struggling Chicago high-school basketball prodigies through their moments of elation and rejection: You've become more involved with the lives of perfect strangers than you ever imagined possible, and what becomes of them matters to you very much indeed.

David Kronke, (818) 713-3638

david.kronke(at)dailynews.com

COUNTRY BOYS - Three and one half stars

What: ``Frontline'' documentary miniseries about Kentucky teens' hardscrabble lives, from David Sutherland, director of ``The Farmer's Wife.''

Where: KCET.

When: 9 tonight, Tuesday and Wednesday.

In a nutshell: Kind of a rural ``Hoop Dreams,'' focusing on how these guys plan for and/or squander their futures.

CAPTION(S):

photo

Photo:

Cody Perkins, left, and Chris Johnson walk the tracks in director David Sutherland's documentary chronicling their tough teenage years in Appalachian Kentucky.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 9, 2006
Words:762
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