Guns, Meth and Kiddie Pageants Intersect in Dark Doc 'Surviving Cliffside' (SXSW Exclusive)

12:46 PM PST 02/28/2014 by Seth Abramovitch
Courtesy of Hollow Creek Pictures

Championed by Spike Lee -- whose NYU assistant directed the film -- it takes a far bleaker look at extreme poverty in rural America than "Honey Boo Boo" ever did.

The hard road to kiddie-pageant victory is the subject of Surviving Cliffside, but if you think this SXSW documentary is another walk down Honey Boo Boo lane, think again.

The film hews closer in tone to the desperate and drug-addled world of Winter's Bone. Makala Smith, the young pageant girl at the story's center, has recently beaten leukemia and lives in the Cliffside Trailer Park in West Virginia. She's being raised by her mom, Brandy Smith -- who's dealing with an unwanted pregnancy -- and her drug-addicted father, E.J. Huffman.

Neighbors are methamphetamine addicts and dealers, food and supplies are scarce, loaded guns are everywhere and the only thing that keeps them going is a shot at the title of Little Miss West Virginia.

In this disturbing clip, a Hollywood Reporter exclusive, E.J. and one of his cohorts honor a friend on the anniversary of his violent suicide, which they describe in gruesome detail. 

From director Jon Matthews, the film was finished with the help of a grant from Spike Lee, for whom Matthews worked as an assistant while attending NYU's graduate film program.

"Spike was a huge mentor for me," Matthews tells THR. "He was a big fan of the project from the early stages. I showed him a clip from the film in my interview for the assistant position." The project also drew the interest of Winter's Bone director Debra Granik, who got her start in documentary films; she watched rough cuts and offered Matthews her notes.

Part of the SXSW Visions program, Surviving Cliffside has its world premiere on Sunday, March 9 at 9:30 p.m.

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