Thumbs up for "Country Boys"

Tonight is the third and final installment of "Country Boys," the PBS Frontline documentary about two white teens growing up in the Kentucky mountains. I've caught the first two installments, and I'll definitely be watching the last piece of this powerful series by David Sutherland tonight.

I'll confess: I didn't think I'd like it. My first impulse is to be suspicious of films about "those poor folks in the hills," which often seem incapable of portraying such people as anything other than stupid hillbillies or pious sufferers.

Thankfully, the two teens whose lives are followed in "Country Boys," Cody and Chris, are made out to be neither. Despite a pretentious-sounding trailer and write-ups that attempt to cast the film as a defining statement about Appalachian poverty, the film itself does a remarkable job of telling these kids' stories on their own terms.

Sutherland pulls off a great balancing act: on one hand, he shows in rich detail the daily issues that folks living in poverty face. We see Chris, for example, missing key school days at the end of the semester -- and thereby sabotaging chances for a timely graduation -- to help his family move their trailer.

These are the daily battles and trade-offs faced by millions of people, which -- added up over time -- go a long way towards defining chances for success or failure. They're also realities that the media and politicians ignore, which is what makes "Country Boys" or Barbara Ehrenriech's Nickel and Dimed necessary, to get America back in touch with its own people.

But at the same time, Sutherland steers clear of making Chris and Cody out to be a strange "other" -- exotic victims that we can feel sorry for but never relate to. Sure, they've had tough lives, don't have much money, and speak with a mountain cadence. But even if those traits don't describe you, Sutherland goes deep enough to reveal that their for struggles for love, security and pride are the same as yours. So watching Chris and Cody go through their lives, making good decisions and bad, you don't just learn about them -- you also learn about yourself.

As a Knight-Ridder reviewer puts it, Sutherland's strength is that he is both honest about poverty, but also helps you understand that "we're all 'Country Boys'":

Alcohol, drugs, teenage pregnancy, emotionally needy parents, the loss of a job. Any one of these things can make the difference between happiness and misery no matter who you are.

At the same time, Sutherland provides constant visual reminders of the pervasive poverty that grips that region. In such conditions, there is almost no margin for error. Either boy's dreams could be disrupted at any moment.