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Surviving Cliffside: SXSW Review

Surviving Cliffside Raising Shirt - H 2014
Courtesy of Hollow Creek Pictures

The Bottom Line

Bleak and not as enlightening as some similar docs.

Venue

South By Southwest Film Festival, Visions

Director

Jon Matthews

Jon Matthews follows his cousin's family through drug-ravaged rural West Virginia.

AUSTIN – Jon Matthews withholds judgment as much as he can in Surviving Cliffside, his doc about drug addiction and bad choices in rural West Virginia. The subjects are his relatives, after all, and he clearly wishes the best for them despite their present circumstances. But viewers may have more difficulty hiding their disapproval of this couple's almost unrepentantly criminal, self-harming lifestyle and the indignities they shower on their eldest daughter for no obvious reason. Dispiriting and not very enlightening, it may open some eyes on TV but will have a hard time competing with other similarly themed docs.

EJ Huffman, the director's cousin, lives in a once-thriving vacation town with his fiancee Brandy Smith and daughters Makala and Josey. He's addicted to pain pills, as are many of his neighbors: Opana, a brand of oxymorphone, is the drug of choice here, and from the sight of a neighbor who spends hours writhing on a street corner in its thrall, addiction isn't considered something to hide. Neither is petty crime: EJ, who once led a gang called the Allen Creek Criminals, is almost unbelievably brazen when we follow him on a shopping trip. Picking up an enormous plastic storage container off a shelf at Target, he walks down aisles stuffing it with thousands of dollars in merchandise and just pushes his cart through the front door hoping nobody will notice.

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Back home, Brandy is coaching Makala through a series of dismal beauty pageants in hopes of making her Little Miss West Virginia. The girl, who not long ago survived a four-year cancer treatment, is made up and costumed like a reality-TV cliche, grimacing her way through inappropriately sexualized dances for small audiences of contestants and their mothers. If at least this ugly contest could help her learn some kind of good sportsmanship, EJ has no such message to convey: "this shit's for sissies and sodomites," he tells his daughter when she doesn't win first place.

The film's structure follows Makala's attempt to qualify for the state finals through a series of small contests. But few viewers will be as interested in this event as in worrying over her and her sister's future in a home so bleak that at one point Mom admits to the camera, "I'm going to Hell."

A year ago at the Tribeca fest, Sean Dunne's artful Oxyana covered much the same ground, traveling to an old Appalachian mining down devastated by prescription-pill abuse. There we saw things as bad as here and much worse. But Dunne captured his subjects' humanity to an extent that one couldn't judge them without feeling one was betraying humanity. Both films are difficult to watch, turning our attention to a part of America we might rather not see. Only one makes the discomfort worthwhile.

Production Companies: Parting Shots Media, Hollow Creek Pictures

Director: Jon Matthews

Producers: Richard Bever, Jon Matthews, Bob Wilkinson

Executive producers: Stephen W. Kern

Music: Lillard Anthony

Editors: Jon Matthews, Jennifer Ruff

Sales: Richard Bever

No rating, 65 minutes