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Michael Lutch
Chris Johnson acted as a surrogate parent to his siblings.

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — What were the two teenagers who allowed cameras to follow them for three years — three years — thinking when they agreed to be the subjects of the masterful PBS series "Country Boys"?

"I was 14. I did not think ahead," said Cody Perkins.

"I'll go with his answer," agreed Chris Johnson.

Yet they never pulled out of the project, which has been seven years in the making. Award-winning filmmaker David Sutherland ("The Farmer's Wife") filmed them from the ages of 15-18 (1999-2002) as they struggled to overcome unbelievably difficult circumstances.

Johnson grew up in a ramshackle trailer in Appalachia with his high-school dropout mother and his alcoholic father, who was dying of cirrhosis of the liver. The teenager, who struggled with learning disabilities, became a surrogate parent to his younger siblings as he fought to better his own circumstances.

Perkins' mother lost a battle with postpartum depression and committed suicide when he was an infant. Twelve years later, his father shot his seventh wife to death before killing himself. After being bounced around to various relatives, Perkins ended up living with his former stepgrandmother, Liz McGuire, who gave the kid a home.

"Country Boys" begins as these two teens enter an alternative high school where they get the help and guidance they've lacked. It's a story of not only their struggles, but life in a part of the country where poverty is part of everyday life for a lot of people.

Sutherland said the idea for "Country Boys" originated shortly before "The Farmer's Wife" aired when someone in a focus group said after a screening that the family in that film — people on the verge of losing their farm — didn't look poor. So he decided to do something in Appalachia. And while he found plenty of poverty, he also found that everywhere he went in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, "the teenage kids all understood me. In spite of what I read in the New York Times, they were all on the Web, all wired, and they all watched MTV.

"So I got interested in doing teenagers. And it took me a while to find the right school and the right place. And everything was different than I imagined it to be."

The young men also saw it as an opportunity to stand up for a part of the country that "the media stereotyped . . . really, really bad," Perkins said. "But I kind of learned (that) just how we think the media stereotyped us, we kind of stereotyped everybody else. I've met a lot of really nice people. It seems like you get five people out of 100 that are jerks and it ruins everything. So it's been good to meet a lot of other different people to be open like that."

"Country Boys" is also a testament to the difference adults who care can make in even the most troubled teen's life.

"I just needed somebody to accept me without having to be the perfect child," Perkins said. "After I lost my dad — that's all I had because I never knew my mother — I just really felt a need to have somebody to care about me no matter how I am. I think not just kids, but all people need that. Everybody needs somebody who's going to care about them unconditionally.

"That's what (McGuire) has done for me and that's what the school did. They accepted these kids that the public schools didn't want."

McGuire said she didn't hesitate to give her permission for Cody to participate in "Country Boys."

"Well, Cody had a very interesting life and it's been very good for him," McGuire said. "And I thought that it was an advantage for him to open up and tell his life story. I think it helped him very much at that time in his life. I welcomed (the filmmakers) into my home and I love them very much. They're like family to me."

Which is also the way things turned out for his friend.

"Honestly, the family support that I should have gotten was never there," said Johnson, who found himself turning to the filmmaker. "My father wasn't around to give me certain advice and things and (Sutherland) would offer some. I'd say if David hadn't been there, I don't know where I would have been.

"The same with the David School. I mean, there was a lot of times certain conversations or certain emotions were just flying wild that day, yet if it came to, like, a father figure or a mother figure, I didn't have that. So, in a way, not only Mr. Sutherland but also the school provided that for me."

Danny Greene, founder and executive director of the David School — a private, nonprofit, alternative high school — actually turned Sutherland down the first time he was approached, in part because he didn't trust "the media in general" because it was always "reinforcing the stereotype" of what people in the Appalachians are like.

"And I watched 'The Farmer's Wife' and I was so touched and moved," Greene said. "I have to say that, really, David and the crew were very respectful to let life be as it is in David, that there was a very strong comfort level. . . . They showed a great deal of respect for the boys, their lives, the region, and I'm really very pleased with that. But I was a hard one to convince for them to come in."

The two young men — now in their early 20s — say it was sometimes tough, but they're glad they took part in "Country Boys."

"Well, to be quite honest, there were times when I thought there was too much of a burden," Johnson said. "I guess just something inside me just said stick with it."

Perkins admits it's a "little embarrassing" to look back at himself as a 15-year-old after he recently saw the first two hours of the program "because I wasn't smart enough to project it the way I felt it needed to be."

"Everybody else told me, 'Oh, everybody acted like that when they was that age.' I said, 'Well, they didn't have the camera following them around on national TV, either.

"But after I went back to my room and thought about it, it really wasn't that big of a deal. I like it. It's true. It's honest."

And Johnson agreed.

"I was nervous. I won't lie about it," Johnson said. "It's one thing you look at a picture of (yourself), but it's another to literally see your life on screen. But I believe the movie was truthful (and) that's how I wanted it to be."


E-mail: pierce@desnews.com