A candid chronicle

The three-part documentary Country Boys on PBS poignantly tells a coming-of-age tale of two troubled Kentucky teens.

Published January 9, 2006

On television, there's "reality," and there's real.

Reality TV lets viewers gawk. Real TV invites them to care.

PBS delivers the six-hour film Country Boys as part of its Frontline series over three consecutive nights, beginning tonight. The documentary by David Sutherland (The Farmer's Wife ) is a painfully detailed account from 1999 to 2002 of two troubled young men, Chris Johnson and Cody Perkins, who are trying to overcome childhood trauma and a life that sometimes seems as lonesome an their isolated corner of eastern Kentucky.

Going beyond voyeurism, Country Boys is more like a family album - an honest family album that shares happy and sad times, dreams realized and neglected: Johnson's father is drinking himself to death, Perkins' father shot his mother and then himself, leaving him to be raised by an assortment of kin.

At times, the repeated scenes of trains rolling through the small town deliver a hopeless refrain. The boys seem forever stuck in place, as even the coal is going somewhere.

But there are signs of hope. There is young love, green mountains, sunny summer days and the David School, a private alternative school, where the teachers seem determined to help the boys achieve something more. For their part, the boys exhibit the resilience of youth.

The project took seven years to complete and air, Sutherland said during his introduction to the film in July. Finding the right teens, with the mixture of accessibility, drama and endurance, was key, he said. And the boys - men now - said they were able to put the cameras out of their minds, but it wasn't always easy.

"To be quite honest, there were times that I thought, you know, there was too much of a burden," Johnson told reporters in July at a news conference. "I guess just something inside me just said stick with it."

"There was times, you know, when you're 16 years old, you don't sometimes want a camera following you around . . . (but) I wasn't going to go through all that crap to not finish it," Perkins said.

Six hours makes for a long film. Rory Kennedy's 1999 film American Hollow on HBO told a similar story of an Appalachian Mountains family in 90 minutes, but the strength of Sutherland's Country Boys is the way it draws viewers in slowly, investing them in the boys' lives.

"Being succinct isn't my best talent," Sutherland said.

Country Boys won't appeal to everyone; it asks a lot. For those who put in the time, it's time well spent.

ALSO TONIGHT: At 8 p.m. on WEDU-Ch. 3 is the first of three weekly episodes of Antiques Roadshow filmed last year in Tampa.