David Sutherland’s “The Farmer’s Wife” galvanized millions of PBS viewers in 1998, delving into economic hardship and its resulting toll on a Nebraska family. Yet the filmmaker’s latest “Frontline” presentation — chronicling three years in the lives of poor Appalachian teens — proves considerably less compelling, in part because the awkwardness of adolescence is such well-trodden territory. Even the beacon that’s shined on endemic poverty and parental dysfunction has a familiar glow, leaving a melancholy but at times plodding six-hour film that easily could have been whittled by a third.
“Country Boys” is in essence the anti-“OC,” as its protagonists Chris and Cody occupy the least glamorous of backdrops, with a teacher initially prodding them to overcome the stereotype of “ignorant hillbillies.”
In that respect, think of it as “Hoop Dreams” without the hoops, where a high-school diploma from the David School — an alternative Kentucky high school for troubled teens — and the prospect of college represent a major triumph.
Still, having spent so much time with his subjects from the age of 15 to 18, Sutherland is doubtless more enamored with them than most viewers are apt to be. Moreover, the kids’ narration sounds especially stiff at the outset, as if they were reading from a journal.
The two back stories are certainly the stuff of a “Jerry Springer” episode. Cody, a devoutly religious youth with black Goth fingernails and his own Christian heavy metal band, is being raised by his step-grandmother, after his father murdered his stripper wife — Cody’s stepmom — and then turned the gun on himself.
As for Chris, he lives in a trailer with his parents, but he has to be the man of the house, since his dad suffers from cirrhosis of the liver thanks to alcoholism and speaks gibberish, sounding rather like the Boomhauer character on “King of the Hill.” As Chris explains, dad “isn’t much of a role model.”
Family woes, in fact, keep threatening to force Chris to drop out of school prematurely, despite his angst-filled efforts to make a mark at David — first by starting a newsletter, then, during the second night, a choir.
Sutherland is adept at providing texture to a section of the U.S. seldom seen on TV, from the slow-rolling pans across the green hills to the montages of signs with slogans like, “Wal-Mart Is Not the Only Saving Place. Try Jesus.” Even so, the project moves along so leisurely that it’s difficult to stay focused, including long discussions between Chris and a teacher, say, or Cody and his girlfriend’s parents, which generally aren’t enlightening enough to justify letting them run on and on.
Not surprisingly, there are some wonderful nuggets within “Country Boys” — a key school official’s departure, an emotional graduation, Cody trying to resolve sexual activity with his religious beliefs — but there’s too much sludge to slog through to reach them. And while we get to see these kids grow and mature, their experience falls short of attaining Sutherland’s lofty description in the press notes of a “universal story about the awkward yet essential journey through adolescence we all must take.”
Despite such shortcomings, don’t be surprised if this docu earns some rapturous reviews from critics numbed by reality TV conventions and thus eager to embrace its slow, rhythmic pace. Look closer, though, and there’s a fine line between hypnotic and monotonous, exposing the simple truth that not every dream, however noble, can sustain six hours across three nights.